Traveling to Ukraine during Covid-19

Posted on Feb 20, 2021

I am feeling great! Recently I traveled to Ukraine and I want to share my experience and thoughts concerning the governments response to the SARS-Cov-2 virus in Ukraine.

General situation in Ukraine

Ukraine is a beautiful and large country. It is located in eastern Europe, currently inhabits over 40 Million people and was a part of the UdSSR. The traces of communism are still visible.

As the time of writing, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed over 1.2 million COVID-19 cases and counts over 24000 deaths.

As a comparission, in Germay - with over 80 million inhabitants - the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is up to 2.3 million and almost 65000 deaths.

The German Government launched an app in 2020 to track risk encounters. Citizens may download the app and be alerted if they have been in the proximity of someone who turned out to have a positive PCR test. While I am not a big fan of this app, there is one silver lining: It is opt in, meaning that one does not have to download the app.

When I prepared for my travels to Ukraine, I found a whole different situation.

Preparing for the travel

Before one can travel to Ukraine nowadays, you have to visit the website visitukraine.today. Ukraine basically has two different lists for all foreign nations. The “Green Zone” countries are required to purchase “a medical insurance policy, valid for the entire period of stay in Ukraine.” The visitukraine site tells you what companies are available to insure you (I paid a little more than 100 EUR for mine). Other than this, there are no requirements and one can travel freely.

However, Germany is currently above the threshold of 50 out of 100.000 and therefore on a “Red Zone”. Travelers coming from red zone countries have to fulfill more requirements on top of the medical insurance. The Ukrainian Government has developed an an App to track people coming into the country. This app, called “Vdoma” (meaning “at home”), has to be installed if you want to enter Ukraine.

It requires the full name of the traveler as well as the passport number. The officials make sure that you have the app installed and have purchased the appropriate insurance. There are three options for travelers from red zone countries to enter:

  1. Observation in specialized isolatiors (whatever the hell that means)
  2. 14 days self-isolation at the place of residence for persons who have agreed to undergo it using the “Vdoma” mobile app (what I did)
  3. Pass the COVID-19 test using the PCR method after crossing the state border (I think a recent test taken before the crossing counts as well)

At the airport I saw some people who had not already installed the app. The officials seemed somewhat lax about the policy and told these people to install the app as soon as they had internet again.

My experience with the ukrainian Covid Tracker

Once the app is installed it displays a 24 hour countdown and a button to press once you have reached the quarantine destination. My girlfriend had a bug in the app and the countdown only gave her 5 minutes. After asking the officials they told us to ignore the countdown and just get home as soon as possible.

The app needs permissions to send push notifications, open the camera and track geolocation. It should also be mentioned that the ratings in app stores are abysmal (under two stars).

PlayStore Rating

AppStore Rating

I have never downloaded an app rated this bad, but in this case I was forced to.

Interacting with the Vdoma COVID App

Once you reach the quaratine destination, you have to press the button in the app. Afterwards the app goes into the main mode. It displays a countdown of the days you have to spend in quaratine. None the less there is the option to leave the quarantine for two hours per day.

When leaving the place of quarantine, the game is pretty much the same. Press the button, a countdown starts and once your leave is finished, press the button again.

So far so good. But what has come to annoy me greatly is that the app requests that you take pictures about 3 times a day. The app then sends you these notifications.

Failure to comply with the request gets you this screen:

I don’t know if there is any negative consequences to not complying (immediately). I guess I will find out once I leave Ukraine again.

The picture taking is not straightforward either. You are asked to tilt your head left, right, or blink with both eyes. I suppose that is to make sure that an actual human is interacting with the program and that it cannot be automated.

Sometimes I woke up and already had the app all upset with me that I did not take the picture in time (I needs my beauty sleep okay?!).

Finishing quarantine

We took a PCR test in Ukraine one day after arriving. The test results are sent directly to the app. And if the test is negative, the quaratine is ended.

So now I am free at last! Well, not really. I am not allowed to delete the app until I have left Ukraine again.

Conclusion

All in all I can safely say that travel has become a lot more complicated with COVID-19. Countries ask for a lot of personal data and have additional barriers to entry. I can imagine that purchasing an insurance policy is prohibitively expensive. Therefore it seems that travel, at least for now, is becoming more of a privilege for the affluent.

The other side of the story is the expanding surveillance apparatus. The Ukrainian Government is on my phone, can access the camera and view my location. I am not particularly comfortable with this, but cannot opt out. Especially since I am not allowed to delete the Vdoma app even now that my quarantine is over.