Ukraine's Zelensky greets China evacuees leaving quarantine

Kiev (AFP) –


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky personally greeted evacuees from China as they emerged on Thursday from 14-day quarantine, in a move aimed at calming fears over the spread of coronavirus.

Zelensky met the 72 evacuees as they left a military medical centre in the town of Novi Sanzhary in the central Poltava region.

Defying virus fears, the former comedian shook their hands and hugged them, as well as posing for selfies.

The good-will gesture came after dozens of locals who opposed the arrival of evacuees clashed with police outside the medical facility and threw stones at buses.

The evacuee group consisted of 45 Ukrainians and 27 foreigners -- plus a few dozen of their closest contacts.

They were greeted warmly by relatives and loved ones who brought bunches of flowers and shouted: "At last it's over!".

"I wish you good health," Zelensky told the evacuees.

"I think you'll remember Novi Sanzhary for your entire life. Come back here on vacation, it's a very beautiful place."

He also thanked ex-health minister Zoryana Skaletska, who volunteered to stay with evacuees in the medical centre to calm the fears of local residents.

"I'm not afraid," the president joked as he hugged Skaletska who lost her post while she was in quarantine because of a reshuffle.

On February 20, local residents set up road blocks to stop evacuees arriving at the medical centre and riot police had to disperse the protesters to reopen the road.

Later an investigation by prominent Ukrainian news site found the protests were fuelled by social media that intentionally spread disinformation and fomented hatred.

"I'm just very glad there wasn't a single case of coronavirus here," said Zelensky.

Ukraine's first case of coronavirus was confirmed Tuesday in the western city of Chernivtsi.

The man was hospitalised three days after returning from holiday in Italy and is said to be in a stable condition.

His wife was initially quarantined at home but was moved to an undisclosed hospital as a precaution after people living in their block of flats complained about this, Ukrainian media reported.

Ukrainian authorities have said they will implement more restrictive measures to curb the outbreak in the near future, such as banning mass events and temporarily closing schools.