As a developing country largely dependent on tourism and remittances from migrants working in Europe, the US and Russia, Georgia is a one of the most economically vulnerable nations during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the government decided to prioritise public health and took very strict restrictive measures in the early stages of pandemic. The result? Widely accepted achievements in prevention and control of the spread of Covid-19, with the crucial role played by the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research (home to the Georgian National Center for Disease Control and Public Health), which is led by the group of well-known Georgian epidemiologists.
Between 26 February and 9 April, Georgia had 218 confirmed cases of Covid-19 infections, three deaths, 410 people under hospital supervision, 4829 people under quarantine and 51 people recovered. Despite these promising numbers, the government is aware of the challenges facing the domestic economy. Georgia is fighting two battles — health and economic — and winning one means nothing if it loses the other.
The worst affected region in Georgia is the capital city Tbilisi, where most of the positive cases have been found. However, the first two municipalities to be locked down were Marneuli and Bolnisi in Kvemo Kartly in the east, and home to most of the country’s ethnic minorities. Some local NGOs and politicians alleged that a lack of information in the native languages of the minorities caused the early spread of the virus. However, the central government has denied these allegations, and for now disseminates all Covid-19 related information in Georgian (official state language), Azerbaijanian and Armenian (the languages of the ethnic minorities), and English.
The first governmental order relating to Covid-19 was issued on 28 January and the Emergency Response Plan was adopted, much earlier than in most European countries. Schools and Universities were closed soon after the very first confirmed case was detected in February. They are now using e-learning tools to teach students, and a major educational project for school children is also broadcasting on TV.
All mass media platforms, such as TV and social media, are being used to advertise the importance of frequent and correct handwashing and maintaining social distance. State borders have been closed to travelers, and flights gradually cancelled (starting with those operating between Georgia and China, Iran and Italy).
The government went into Emergency mode from 21 March, declaring a full lockdown until 21 April. The first stage involved banning gatherings of 10 or more people, shutting down restaurants, cafes and other public eating places, and closing hotels and guesthouses. Most high-class hotels were converted for used as quarantine zones for travelers returning from abroad. Only pharmacies and food stores were allowed to remain open. People venturing out of their homes were required to carry the IDs, while elderly people (70 years and over) were restricted from going out. The local municipalities and specially trained volunteers were tasked with suppling the elderly with food and other necessary items.
From 31 March onwards, a 9 PM to 6 AM curfew has been imposed across the country. Gatherings of more than three people are prohibited. But people continue to attend services at the Orthodox Church, the dominant religious institution. All other religious denominations have stopped their services. Ilia II, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia and the most influential person in the country, called on parishes to continue services but strictly follow the government’s rules of maintaining social distance of two meters in the buildings and 1.5 meters in outdoors.
All public transport, except taxis, has been stopped, while the number of people who can travel in one car at a time has been limited to three. The fines for violating the emergency rules and curfew are very high—3000 Gel for individuals and 15000 Gel for legal entities.
Hundreds of thousands Georgian immigrants have been caught off guard by the Covid-19 pandemic and the travel restrictions imposed by various countries, including Georgia. Ensuring all Georgian nations abroad receive effective assistance from the foreign ministry and diplomatic and consular missions, and mitigating any possible negative consequences has been the other big area of focus for the government during the pandemic.
Georgia was one of the pioneer countries to launch the International Centre for Migration Policy Development’s Migrants — in the countries in crisis project for its diplomats and diaspora originations. Several trainings were held for Georgian diplomats and consular staff and representatives of diaspora organisations in 2018-19, including semi-live simulations. Although, the trainings did not include a worldwide pandemic scenario, the skills and knowledge gained have been helpful in the proper management of the current situation.
Shortly after declaring the Emergency, the lari, Georgia’s currency, dropped significantly against the US dollar and Euro, and although it has now stabilised, it remains at a historic low. This causes serious problems for Georgia — which is heavily dependent on imports, including those of vital food products — as the currency rate has a significant influence on prices. Besides, exporter countries may also impose their own restrictions.
To minimise the negative impact, the government announced the infusion of two billion Gel in the economy and for social needs. The general sentiment, however, is that without any foreign financial help, it will be very difficult for Georgia to survive an economic downturn. The emergency rules have slowly been revised to allow companies to continue operating if they adhere to strict sanitary measures and apply for a special permit.
Georgia’s solidarity fund, established in 2014 in an effort to support vulnerable individuals and families, has accumulated about Gel 125,000,000 (approximately US$40 million). The government and parliament members also announced that they would donate 1/3rd of their salaries to the fund for next three months. The people are doing their bit too. All large supermarkets have installed drop boxes where customers can donate food or other items for socially disadvantaged people.
Although it is too early to see the full impact of the Covid19 pandemic, some positive outcomes are becoming clear. Realising that dependence on imports may cause serious problems to the social stability of the country, the government have declared the promotion and support of local industry as one of its main goals. Measures have already been taken in the agricultural sector.
The situation has also revealed the quality and professionalism of Georgian doctors and the resilience of the healthcare system. And finally, despite complaining of having to isolate and quarantine at home, more and more people are now admitting to positive sides of staying home and getting to spend time with their families.
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Eka Siradze (LLM PhD) is Associated Professor of Tbilisi State University. Her specialization is law of the sea &: admiralty law Public International law and ...Read More +