To say that the Covid19 pandemic has been front and centre in Georgia since it first appeared would be an exaggeration. When the pandemic was at its peak in Wuhan, China, most Georgian were focused on their compatriot who was in that city and maintained a blog of her experience. At this time, it seemed like the pandemic and its impacts were happening too fat away affect us. When former President Mikheil Saakashvili urged the government to close the border with China, his political opponents labelled it as a manifestation of xenophobia. But the country had to wake up to the reality of the situation.
After Covid-19 hit Iran in early February, it became much more alarming. Even though Georgia and Iran do not share a border, many Iranian tourists visit our country. Besides, our neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan border Iran. It perhaps did not surprise many that the first confirmed case of Covid-19 infection in Georgia came from Iran: a group of Azerbaijanis living in Georgia visited Iran to buy carpets, and one of them later tested positive at the end of February. Soon after, many more cases emerged.
On 1 March, the government recommended the all mass events be cancelled, and closed cinemas, theaters and museums. A day later, Ilia II, head of the Georgian Apostolic Church, called for a rally before a difficult test. The chief epidemiologist of Georgia Amiran Gamkrelidze appealed to citizens to try not using cash and disinfect their hands. At this stage, Georgia had only three confirmed Covid-19 cases.
For a long time, Covid-19 was a disease of the well-off. The virus travelled to various countries with people who could afford to go on trips. On 3 March, seven people arriving from Milan, Italy, tested positive. Soon, people returning from other countries also ill. But Georgia did not force people returning from abroad to be quarantined or undergo tests, and so the virus spread quickly as people continued their social lives. The authorities tried to deal with this by identifying contacts and imprisoning those who interacted with infected people in quarantine, but all contacts could not be established. On 6 March, Georgia suspended flights to and from Italy, and all citizens arriving from China, South Korea and Italy were put under a compulsory quarantine.
The real problems began when labour migrants began to return from Europe, particularly from Italy. This was a double blow to Georgia: first, many of those returning were Covid-19 carriers; and second, many returned after losing their jobs, meaning their families and the country was now deprived of the large amounts of money they would remit.
The government also took the first measures to support the tourism sector, a main contributor to the Georgian economy. The sector had reported losses of US$10 million in February, before the pandemic arrived in Georgia but had already been making its way through the globe. The hospitality sector too had to quickly adapt: the land leases of all bars and restaurants that used the sidewalks for outdoor seating were withdrawn; free dining rooms were made available for the socially vulnerable; and canteens began offering only takeaway service.
Despite this, on 10 March, the Georgian patriarchate stated that it was not going to review church rituals, but agreed to disinfect the temples. On March 11, the Georgian media switched to a remote mode of operation. Conscription for military service were postponed, and the police began to tightly control people in quarantine. On 12 March, Georgian Prime Minister Georgy Gaharia recommended that all enterprises and institutions switch to the remote mode of operation as far as possible. All night clubs stopped working. A mandatory 14-day quarantine was introduced for all those entering the country. The government announced a package of anti-crisis measures and decided to postpone the payment of property tax until 1 November for enterprises associated with the tourism business. Banks also decided to defer all payments on loans for three months.
On 13 March, all schools were closed. The borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan were closed, while the borders with Russia, Turkey and the EU remained open. Only one checkpoint at the Turkey border was while two others remained operational. Air links with Turkey and road links with Russia continued. Closing the borders led to local tragedies, with TV channels showing footage of people burying their relatives and who were in a hopeless situation. Georgians began to buy food and other necessities in bulk, which led to long queues at the shopping centers. Many people in the cities began returning to their villages. The country was in a panic, despite the fact that at that time there were only 33 confirmed Covid-19 cased.
Despite the people being well-informed about the threats, most hygiene and sanitary norms were not respected. In pharmacies, there was a shortage of masks, gloves and disinfectants. And testing numbers for Covid-19 were far below the laboratory capacity because tests were only administered in cases with severe symptoms.
Measures are tightened
By the evening of 16 March, the number of people in quarantine increased sharply mainly because Georgians in other countries began returning. Since 18 March, Georgia has closed its borders to all foreigners. It soon became apparent that the country was heading to a state of emergency.
On 17 March, travel was prohibited on shuttle vans, Tbilisi’s main public transport. As a result, there were too many people on the buses and metro. All sports halls and spas were closed. Registration of marriages were forbidden and houses of justice limited the reception of visitors.
On 19 March, 40 positive cases were recorded and 1344 people were in quarantine. On 20 March, the Security Council decided to close all trade facilities in the country except for food stores, pharmacies, gas stations, banks and post offices. All flights were terminated, except those bringing citizens back to the country.
On 21 March, a meeting of the Holy Synod of the Georgian Apostolic Church was held, but the hierarchs refused to change the rules of church service. On the same day, the government decided to impose a state of emergency. All borders were closed, except for the transport of goods. No more than ten people could gather simultaneously, including at stores. All public services switched to online mode. The government retained the right to restrict ownership and use private property for medical purposes or for quarantine; to regulate the prices of medicines, medical care and food; and mobilise all persons with a medical education. Court hearings began to be held remotely. Strict fines and punishments were announced for those violating the emergency, emergency, quarantine and isolation.
On March 23, two regions—Marneuli and Bolnisi—were put under strict quarantine after a woman who owned a store tested positive. Her confirmed contacts exceeded 1700 people. Marneuli and Bolnisi are mainly made up of Azerbaijanis, so there were some instances of xenophobia on social media following their closure. But these xenophobic comments and reactions were quickly put to a stop.
Hard quarantine begins
Since 31 March, a general quarantine has been implemented across Georgia. Curfew has been imposed from 9 pm to 6 am, and all checkpoints have been set up at all major cities to restrict the movement of people. All public transport has completely stopped. Taxis and cars can ply with only two passengers in the back seat. People were told to carry their identity cards with them when stepping out of their homes. People over 70 years of age were forbidden to leave their homes, except to go to the nearest store, pharmacy or medical facility. All currency exchange offices were closed. The government issued a decree on the creation of food stocks. All economic activity was put on hold. At this time, there were 108 total cases.
On 4 April, Georgia recorded its first Covid-19 death—a 79-year-old woman with a heart condition.
The main issue around this time was the approach of the Easter holiday. The Georgian Orthodox Church refused to close the temples and conduct services online, despite most other religious organisations around the world doing so. Fierce debates followed. After nearly two weeks of mutual accusations, the Synod and the authorities agreed to hold the Easter service only in large churches, following all social distancing measuring, including wearing masks. On 16 April, three days before Easter, the government completely closed all cities and prohibited the use of all modes of transport, including taxis. This ban continued until 27 April.
On 24 April, the government submitted a draft anti-crisis programme, providing assistance to people who lost their jobs—over six months, they will receive 200 lari (about US$63) from the state—and a one-time assistance of 300 lari (about US$95) for the self-employed. Commercial banks will be provided with a long-term resource of 600 million lari (about US$187 million). In addition, 500 million lari (about US$158 million) will be allocated to support businesses, of which 300 million lari (about US$94.5 million) will be provided for the loan guarantee scheme.
As of 4 May, Georgia had 593 confirmed Covid-19 cases and nine death. Although the government had taken strict measures to control the spread of the virus, its effectiveness can only be told over time. Nevertheless, Georgia, like other countries, has a long road ahead.
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