by Giovanni Zambello
The extreme cold wave gripping Central and Eastern Europe continues unabated, with wind, heavy snow and Siberia-level temperatures – in some areas as low as -32 C –has led to the death of over 80 people from hypothermia and frostbite, caused power outages, traffic chaos and seen the closure of schools and nurseries in parts of Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Serbia, Romania and Russia.
The majority of the victims are homeless people, already victims of the prolonged economic crisis.
The death toll in Ukraine is edging close to the figure of 47 recorded two years ago in a simlar cold wave.
In Belarus, hospitals in the capital Minsk are seeing an elevated number of people suffering from frostbite and hypothermia.
Red Cross Societies in the countries gripped by the cold have been working around the clock to meet the basic needs of the affected people, with hot meals, warm clothing and blankets.
“Although we expect harsh winters in this part of the world this curent freeze has come towards the end of a mild winter,” said Zlatko Kovac, IFRC representative for Belarus and Ukraine. “Homeless people have been caught unawares and unprepared. They don’t follow long-range forecasts and are extemely vulnerable.”
Just over 140,000 Swiss francs (108,000 Euro, 141,000USD) have been released from the International Federation’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF); 46,000 CHF to belarus and 94,000 to its larger southern neighbour.
The money is being used to support 1,500 homeless people in Belarus, via temporary shelters. It will also enable Ukraine Red Cross to respond to its Ministry for Emergencies’ request for support in supplying tent shelters with food items and blankets and to jointly assist the vulnerable people.
In Poland - where five people have died of hypothermia in the last 24 hours, bringing the death toll from the cold to 15 in the last four days - the Red Cross in the west-central part of the country, runs a hostel for homeless people. With a capacity of 59 beds, the venue is now hosting over 65, as more and more are arriving.
The local police force is monitoring gardens and narrow streets in the town of Konin to find the homeless and offer them safe and warm shelter in the Polish Red Cross hostel. The reception centre is receiving strong support from loval citizens, who are contributing blankets, bedding and warm clothes, and from the local food bank, which cooperates with the Polish Red Cross branch in providing daily hot meals.