Ukraine cracks down on smuggling of masks as cities announce shutdowns

A woman wearing a protective mask walks near a check point in Donetsk, Ukraine, on March 14, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

KIEV (REUTERS) - Ukrainian cities announced shutdowns on Monday (March 16) to contain the spread of the coronavirus and the government said it had cracked down on attempts to smuggle face masks abroad after 50,000 of them alone were seized from a car on the Polish border.

The capital Kiev announced the closure of bars, restaurants, cafes and shopping malls and said people's movement to other towns should be restricted as much as possible. Other towns and cities including Lviv and Odessa passed similar measures.

Offices in Kiev remained open but the government has encouraged companies to allow their employees to work from home and said it might soon ban gatherings of more than 10 people.

"We understand that this is a nuisance for city dwellers and a loss for business. But it is necessary and temporary. Profits and money are important. But people's health and lives are paramount!" Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko said in a statement.

Ukraine has recorded five cases of the coronavirus, including one death. It earlier shut schools, announced a ban on the entry of foreign nationals and will ban passenger flights and trains to and from the country from Tuesday.

The turbulence has weighed on the hryvnia, which slipped to 26 to the dollar last week for the first time since July 2019, prompting the central bank to sell nearly US$1 billion (S$1.42 billion) in one week to prevent excessive currency fluctuations.

Ukraine has also banned the export of face masks, which the head of the customs service Maxim Nefedov said on Monday had become a more popular item to smuggle across the border than cigarettes.

The authorities have prevented 130,000 such masks from being sold abroad this weekend alone, Mr Nefedov said.

A car with 50,000 masks was detained at a customs checkpoint in Yahodyn in western Ukraine at the border with Poland, prosecutors said on Monday.

Separately Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on commented on a report that Slovakia wanted to buy masks from Ukraine.

"There is no country in Europe now that isn't hunting for masks and respirators around the world," Mr Kuleba wrote on socila media.

"Now let me say one thing: If Slovakia really tried to buy the masks, then it planned to bypass our legislation. Exports are prohibited until June 6 at least."

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