Georgia and COVID-19. The miracle of social and institutional resilience
Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, some forecasts on Georgia’s prospects were apocalyptic – everything could have gone wrong. Although Georgia is ranked lower and lower each year (which, in this instance, means improvement) in the Fragile State Index since 2008, many had doubts if the conjunction of several factors would allow this small country in the South Caucasus to manage the incoming crisis effectively. While more than 40 per cent of the population still lives in mountainous, isolated areas, a robust inflow of tourists to the capital city as well as sea and ski resorts could have had a serious impact on the dynamic of the pandemic.
Extensive PR campaigns (#SpendYourSummerInGeorgia), the famous hospitality of Georgians, as well as business prospects, incentivised over nine million international travellers (almost twice as many as permanent residents) to visit the country in 2019, according to the Georgian National Tourism Administration. Tourists mainly come from Russia (despite the formal suspension of flights by the Russian government), other post-Soviet countries but also from Iran. Currently both of these countries are experiencing extremely high rates of COVID-19 cases. Moreover, concern was also expressed about Georgians working abroad returning to Georgia in large numbers from Western Europe.
Although the Georgian health sector (which is mostly privatised) improved some time ago and the number of medical staff and hospital beds is higher than some EU countries, there are still shortages in terms of medical equipment. For instance, there had been a small number of respirators in the country (only three ECMOs and about 2,000 respirators, half of which are already allocated to patients with other ailments). A large shortage of auxiliary medical staff (nurses predominantly), caused by massive emigration to the West, has also been of a great concern when dealing with the pandemic. COVID-19 patients are being admitted to nine hospitals, including the military hospital in Gori.
The possibility for a large number of COVID-19 cases was a legitimate concern in light of the demographic structure of the country. A sizable number of the population is over 65 (14.3 per cent of the total population) and three per cent are aged 80 or older. At the beginning of the pandemic it was widely believed that the virus would mostly target older populations. Against this background, in mid-March, when most EU countries were experiencing hundreds and even thousands of new cases every day, the total number of cases in Georgia was a mere 25. Over the next two months this number rose to over 700 cases, including 12 deaths – still nothing compared to most Western European countries, even if we take into consideration the alleged lack of sufficient testing.
The Georgian government responded fairly quickly to the virus with public health measures to curb the outbreak. International flights were suspended and a strict national lockdown was enforced: quarantines, curfews, a ban on public gatherings, including religious ceremonies (with the exception of masses held by the Orthodox Church). On March 21st a state of emergency was declared. Conscription planned for the spring season was suspended and educational and cultural establishments were closed. Movement was restricted, including a ban on private transportation (marshrutkas) and private cars in order to prevent people from celebrating Easter with members of usually large families living in different parts of the country. To mitigate the economic consequences, the government introduced a control of prices for basic groceries, an unemployment benefit of 200 lari (55 euros) for six months as well as some tax exemptions.
The institutional response was led by the prime minister, Giorgi Gakharia, who established and is leading a coordination council to combat the pandemic. It is believed, however, that a crucial role was played by the biological lab in Tbilisi, created in 2011 by Georgia with assistance of the United States, which verifies samples from all over the country. Co-operation with the US in a variety of fields was coordinated by the United States Agency for International Development, while the US allocated 1.7 million US dollars to assist the Georgian government during the pandemic.
It is worth noting that the biological lab, known as the Lugar Lab, is the focal point of serious disinformation campaigns led by Russia, as a secret facility aimed at assembling biological weapons. What is worse, a former Georgian minister for state security, Igor Giorgadze, had supported these claims. The allegation had been dismissed by numerous reports by independent experts, but Georgian authorities are rightfully concerned about the intensity of such disinformation campaigns. Every time the flu season is in full swing in Georgia, rumours about the Lugar lab immediately spread. The Georgian government actually invited Russian officials to inspect the lab, but the offer was rejected. It was visited by a small number of Russia journalists, but efforts to change the image of the lab are futile and conspiracy theories continue to spread.
Other international institutions have also come to the rescue. As an effect of the “Team Europe” strategy, the European Commission granted Georgia 150 million euros (out of 960 million devoted for short and medium-term support for all Eastern Partnership states) in macro-financial assistance. The funds will be available for a year and disbursed in two instalments. No doubt, these loans are more than desirable by Georgian businesses, even if they by no means cover total losses. Notwithstanding the responses, no one is questioning the disastrous effect the coronavirus will have on the economy. Tourism, which will suffer the most, is an important part of the domestic economy, creating ten per cent of GDP and employing 500,000 people (a third of all workers, where unemployment is a pending problem). More than three billion dollars was generated from international tourism last year in Georgia.
What is more, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved a 100 million dollar loan to help Georgia contain the spread of the pandemic to mitigate the impact on businesses and protect the livelihoods of the most vulnerable, including women and children. The IMF is also discussing a package of “additional financing”. The World Bank is offering Georgia 45 million euros to support the government to implement ongoing reforms and mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic. Georgia was also a beneficiary of NATO support. As early as April 3rd, the Alliance received a request for international assistance from the Georgian government. Some countries like Poland were also quick to deliver assistance to Georgia.
Against all odds, the COVID-19 crisis has shown that Georgia is much more resilient than we expected, both in institutional and societal dimension. The interesting thing is that while some external actors like Russia, with the “borderisation” process, pose the main threat to Georgia’s security, at the same time other actors (like the United States, NATO, the EU, and foreign donors) have provided valuable support in crafting many mechanisms of resilience in Georgia. The state institutions and the public also proved to be extremely disciplined and showed much solidarity with the healthcare workers, providing them with food and water and sponsoring medical devices. Clearly, many countries can learn from Georgia’s handling of the COVID crisis, both at the institutional and societal level.
Beata Górka-Winter is an expert on international security and an adjunct professor at the Center for Europe, University of Warsaw. She is also a senior research fellow in the EU-Listco project (Horizon2020) covering Georgia.
This text is part of a special expert survey titled “Geopolitics and coronavirus” co-financed through an agreement with the Eastern Europe Department at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.