By Mark Dovich
The implementation of widely differing approaches to the ongoing global coronavirus outbreak in the South Caucasus has led to striking contrasts in public health outcomes in the region. Georgia in particular stands out for its remarkably low number of reported infections: as of May 3, the country had reported only 582 infections and 9 deaths. Meanwhile, neighboring Armenia had recorded 2,376 infections and 35 deaths through the same period.
This disparity is even more astonishing when taking into account the fact that Georgia is considerably more integrated into global travel networks than Armenia; that Georgia welcomes significantly more tourists annually than Armenia; and that Georgia’s population outnumbers Armenia’s by roughly 700,000 people.
For another point of comparison, consider that Georgia has reported less coronavirus cases than Luxembourg, even though Luxembourg’s population is roughly six times smaller than Georgia’s. Conversely, Armenia’s number of reported infections is roughly the same as neighboring Azerbaijan’s—despite the fact Azerbaijan’s population is more than triple Armenia’s.
Even taking into consideration a recent report by the United Nations Development Program that ranks Armenia higher than Georgia in pandemic vulnerability on a number of factors, including government healthcare expenditures, internet connectivity levels, and poverty rates, the figures above are staggering.
In fact, international observers and media organizations have labelled Georgia “a genuine world leader” and “an unlikely success story” in the coronavirus crisis, with some even going so far as to hail “Georgia’s coronavirus miracle”. For onlookers in neighboring Armenia, though, Georgia’s approach to the outbreak raises some uncomfortable questions: namely, what has Georgia done right, and why has Armenia, so far, been unable to follow suit?
Georgia Implements Stricter Measures Earlier
First, compared to Armenia, Georgia has introduced stricter restrictions and has implemented them earlier and faster. To begin with, Georgia suspended all flights from China, where the virus originated, in January—about a month before reporting its first infection. Then, when Georgia did report its first case on February 26, the government took swift and decisive action.
Within days, a state of emergency had been declared; every government ministry had prepared action plans; and an interagency task force had been established. By the end of the month, flights to then-hotspots Iran and Italy had been suspended; all schools and universities had been closed; a nighttime curfew had been introduced; all public transport had been suspended; and private transport had been limited.
As infections spread, the government continued to introduce social and travel limitations. By the end of March, all air traffic to and from Georgia had been suspended; a ban on entry to the country by all non-resident foreign citizens had been implemented; gatherings of more than three people had been prohibited; and intercity domestic travel had been severely curtailed, putting Tbilisi and three other major cities, Batumi, Kutaisi, and Rustavi, on lockdown.
Meanwhile, Armenia has implemented many similar measures, but Armenia’s limitations have often been less strict and have come days or weeks later than Georgia’s. As a result, social distancing has been less comprehensive in Armenia, providing more opportunities for the coronavirus to spread. This discrepancy between the two countries’ policies is reflected in a “self-isolation index” developed by the Caucasian Knot, a respected Russian online publication that focuses on the region.
The index uses geolocation data from Yandex, a prominent Russian IT company that has been called “Russia’s Google” and whose products are widely used in the post-Soviet space. According to an analysis of the index, Tbilisi has indeed seen a larger drop in social activity since February than Yerevan, reflecting the stricter measures implemented by the Georgian government.
Georgian Government Steps Back to Let Specialists Lead
Second, following the implementation of social and travel limitations, the Georgian government has largely stepped back to let epidemiologists and health specialists lead the fight against the coronavirus. Indeed, the central figure to have emerged in Georgia’s coronavirus response is Amiran Gakrelidze, the head of the country’s National Center for Disease Control (NCDC), not Ekaterina Tikaradze, the country’s Minister of Health. Perhaps for this reason, the fight against the coronavirus has not been politicized in Georgia. In Armenia, on the other hand, the government has taken full responsibility for fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
Georgia Already Had Access to Testing Facilities
Finally, prior to the emergence of the coronavirus, the Georgian government already had access to world-class testing facilities at the Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research in the outskirts of Tbilisi. Since the outbreak reached Georgia, the laboratory, which was built with U.S. government aid and opened in 2011, has worked 24 hours a day conducting highly accurate polymerase chain reaction tests on samples provided by those suspected to be infected with the coronavirus, with results produced within four or five hours.
In contrast, the Armenian government did not have access to the necessary laboratory equipment to test for the coronavirus when the outbreak began to spread globally in January. Indeed, it was until early April, when Armenia had already reported numerous infections, that the country’s government even earmarked funds for the domestic production of coronavirus tests, allocating more than 500,000 U.S. dollars to the Institute of Molecular Biology in Yerevan. As of this writing, Armenia still lacks the capacity to produce tests in-country.
Georgian Government Still Faces Some Challenges
Nonetheless, the Georgian government still faces challenges in its fight against the coronavirus. For one, the Georgian government has been unable to overcome longstanding problems communicating information to ethnic minority communities on issues of national importance. These problems have been exacerbated both by the predominance of the Georgian language in the country’s media and by generally low levels of proficiency in Georgian among the country’s ethnic minority groups, which often use Russian as the language of choice for interethnic communication. This lack of accessible information on the coronavirus is perhaps best reflected by the emergence of a large cluster of infections in the city of Marneuli, which has an overwhelmingly ethnic Azerbaijani population.
At the same time, the Georgian government has faced stiff resistance from the influential Georgian Orthodox Church, led by an increasingly defiant Patriarch Ilia II, who has refused to close churches and has sometimes failed to provide sufficient space for parishioners to follow social distancing guidelines. Most controversially, in preparation for Easter services in mid-April, Georgia’s religious leadership ignored calls to stop using a communal spoon to distribute wine among churchgoers.
In contrast, the Armenian Apostolic Church has closed access to holy sites across Armenia, broadcasting church services on television or live-streaming platforms instead. On Easter, Armenian public television channels broadcast services led by Catholicos Karekin II, the country’s religious head.
Finally, the Georgian government has received criticism for their decision to conduct testing in a rather narrow and limited manner. Some Armenian media groups have, for instance, claimed that Georgia’s limited testing scheme actually reflects a government coverup to underreport the country’s number of cases. To that end, observers have noted that Armenia had conducted nearly twice as many tests as Georgia by late April: upwards of 16,500, as compared to Georgia’s roughly 8,300.
In response, the Georgian authorities have argued that their targeted testing program is both a better use of state resources and an indication that the coronavirus outbreak in Georgia has been so successfully controlled that only a limited testing scheme is reasonable. Likewise, analysts have pointed to Georgia’s high ratio of negative-to-positive test results, which is twice Armenia’s, as evidence that the Georgian government is not underreporting cases. As of late April, Georgia recorded 19.3 negative results for each positive test, while Armenia’s ratio stood at 9.4 to one. Moreover, independent experts have gone on the record stating that neither Georgia nor Armenia are believed to be seriously underreporting infections, given the current statistical models.
Planning for a “Return to Normality” in the Region
On May 4, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced the lifting of many coronavirus-related restrictions in some of the “most decisive steps” to a “return to normality” in the South Caucasus region so far, despite a surge in infections in the country. Under the new guidelines, virtually all restrictions on businesses, both in the manufacturing and service sectors, have been lifted, though employees and customers alike will be required to respect social distancing guidelines and maintain personal hygiene standards. At present, public transport in Armenia is to remain suspended.
Meanwhile, Georgia is lifting restrictions in a more cautious and gradual manner. Also on May 4, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia reiterated that the country would enact a six-stage plan for economic reopening, though he did allow for the possibility that the plan may begin ahead of schedule. Gakharia also announced that lockdown measures would be lifted in the cities of Batumi and Kutaisi beginning May 5, though Tbilisi and Rustavi, both of which have emerged as infection hotspots in the country, are set to remain in lockdown for some time.
As with so much at the moment, the path forward for the South Caucasus region—both in terms of public health and economic resilience—remains rather uncertain. What is clear, though, is that once the situation stabilizes, both Georgia and Armenia should reflect on which measures worked to battle the pandemic, which measures failed, and what lessons can be drawn in preparation for future crises.