Hanna Korinna survived the Holodomor, World War II, Stalinist repressions and countless economic upheavals in the last century, but this winter’s severe cold turned out to be too much for the 93-year-old woman.
On Feb. 4, Korinna went out to her yard in Orlovets village in Cherkasy Oblast, slipped and fell.
Sometime later, her 83-year-old husband Mykola Demydenko went out looking for her, using a chair as a walking aid. He tried to drag her to the house, but fell.
By the time neighbors found the couple, Korinna had already frozen to death. Demchenko is now recovering from hypothermia in a local hospital.
This story, recounted by a spokesman for the regional branch of the Ministry for Emergency Situations, is one of hundreds of harrowing accounts of the struggle to survive in temperatures that for two weeks have been stuck below zero, reaching minus 30 C in some regions.
As the cold snap that has swept Europe enters a second week, the continent has reported around 400 deaths. More than 100 of those are in Ukraine, exposing the nation as unprepared for such weather extremes.
Critics are blaming the authorities for the high death toll, and parliament has summoned Emergency Situations Minister Viktor Baloha to report and answer questions on Feb. 10.
Health Minister Oleksandr Anishchenko revised downard the cold-weather related death toll at a press conference on Feb. 8. The Health Ministry now said 112, not 135, people died from weather-related causes. Anishchenko said the revision was based on medical facts, although his rationale sounded like a “they-were-going-to-die-anyway” rationale.
“Each case is re-examined and the autopsies are performed. Some of those people who allegedly died of hypothermia turned out to have other causes of death. Some had heart conditions that only worsened with hypothermia. Some had other diseases,” Anishchenko said.
Officials also blame the high number of deaths on high levels of alcohol consumption. Emergency Situations Minister Viktor Baloha estimated that alcohol was a factor in 90 percent of the deaths reported.
Experts blame the country’s poverty and dysfunctional state system, which doesn’t do enough to help vulnerable groups such as the homeless and the elderly.
Anishchenko shifted the blame onto regional authorities who “are not always willing to execute the decisions” of the central government.
But critics say the authorities were ill-prepared.
Their main efforts to help have been setting up more than 3,000 heated tents across the country, where the homeless and those in need can have a warm meal, hot drink, basic medical treatment and also pick up some warm clothes donated by the Red Cross.
“The government could have done much more. There are not even clear figures on the number of homeless in Ukraine. While officials say 15,000, non government organizations who work with homeless say the amount is as high as 800,000,” said Pavlo Rozenko, an expert at the Razumkov Center think tank.
Around 2,500 people have been hospitalized with frostbite and hypothermia, according to the Health Ministry.
In Kyiv, with a homeless population estimated at 12,000, hospitals are filled with the homeless, as the government urged hospital officials not to release them until weather conditions improve.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said he is “very concerned” with the problem, adding that police are picking up people who appear to be homeless on the streets across the country and bringing them to the heated tents or hospitals. The majority of people are dying outside Kyiv, which has seen only five deaths.
“Two people were found on the streets. One was a drunken man who froze to death near his porch as he was trying to get home. Another case involved a homeless disabled woman who was found in a manhole in Svyatoshynsky district of Kyiv. As for the other three people, they died in hospitals,” said Vitaliy Pshenychny, who heads the Kyiv division of the Emergency Ministry.
In villages and small towns, officials say it is mostly old people living remotely or those who abuse alcohol who die, often freezing to death in their cold houses, porches or yards.
Local authorities say they have little they can do to help.
“All we can do is offer for people to come and warm up at our hospital. We do not have tea, but can offer boiled water. Of course, if somebody is drunk or will fall somewhere, he is likely to freeze to death and nobody will see him. These are tragic accidents,” said Ihor Chekalenko, head of Hitsky village in Cherkasy Oblast.
As people in villages try to keep their houses warm, many neglect safety rules while dealing with wooden stoves, electric and gas heaters. According to the Emergency Situations Ministry, more than 100 people died in fires or from smoke inhalation since the cold snap began on Jan. 26.
The chance for more deaths remains high. Forecasters say the extremely cold weather will continue until Feb. 15, when the temperature might finally rise to minus 3 Celsius.