By Mark Dovich
In early May, both Armenia and Georgia announced plans to begin reopening their economies following roughly two months of coronavirus-related lockdowns. By the end of May, both countries are poised to reopen most businesses, stores, and restaurants, as well as public transport. Authorities in Armenia and Georgia alike have argued that maintaining restrictions on social activity has proven economically unsustainable.
Nonetheless, the two countries’ coronavirus trajectories remain starkly different: while Armenia continues to suffer from a steady rise in the number of infections, Georgia now records daily infections in the single digits.
According to analysis from Caucasian Knot, Armenia’s relatively higher rates of infection may reflect higher levels of non-compliance with quarantine measures among the general population as compared to other countries in the region.
Using geolocation data from the popular Russian search engine Yandex, Yerevan has seen significantly higher levels of social activity during its period of quarantine than Tbilisi, Baku, and Moscow. Moreover, Yerevan’s quarantine was maintained for the fewest number of days compared to a number of major world cities, including New York City and Paris. The Yandex data for Armenia also indicate a direct correlation between the level of social activity in the country and its number of infections.
According to Caucasian Knot, these data reflect both a public attitude toward the pandemic that does not take the threat of the disease seriously and an inability or unwillingness on the part of Armenia’s authorities to require that citizens comply with the quarantine.
To that end, Armenia’s relatively high rate of infection vis-a-vis Georgia has been compounded by several other factors—namely, a relatively late implementation of social restrictions in Armenia, a lack of testing facilities and equipment, and longstanding public health issues, including widespread obesity and high smoking rates.
As with quarantine measures, the Armenian and Georgian governments appear to be taking rather different approaches to reopening their respective countries to international tourism. For their part, the Armenian authorities have so far not pushed the topic, focusing instead on getting the pandemic under control and promoting domestic tourism within the country.
On the other hand, the Georgian government has unveiled a detailed plan to help the country’s tourism industry, a reflection of the crucial role international tourism plays in the country’s economic development. Last year, tourism accounted for more than 10 percent of Georgia’s GDP and generated more than 3 billion U.S. dollars in revenue for the country.
Under the government’s roughly 60-million-dollar plan, tourism-related businesses and their employees will be eligible for a number of relief measures, including tax breaks and exemptions, direct subsidies, monthly wages, and other fiscal incentives.
At the same time, the Georgian authorities have announced that the country will begin welcoming foreign tourists again on July 1, directing them to special “tourist zones” where strict anti-coronavirus measures have been implemented. Though several popular resort towns, including Borjomi, Gudauri, and Tskaltubo, have been floated as possible “tourist zones”, the government has yet to confirm exactly which places will be designated as such. Likewise, the specific measures to be put into place in the zones to combat the coronavirus remain unclear.
In late May, tensions rose between Armenia and Georgia when Armenian Health Minister Arsen Torosyan accused the Georgian government of both underreporting coronavirus-related deaths and purposefully testing at low rates in an effort to artificially lower the number of confirmed infections in the country. Rigorous statistical analyses of Georgia’s negative-to-positive test result ratios have consistently supported the idea that the country’s low testing rate simply reflects its low infection rate, with no evidence of a government cover-up.
Torosyan’s comments provoked outrage both among Georgian public health officials and on Georgia’s vibrant social media networks, with many demanding Torosyan apologize. Several days later, an Armenian Health Ministry spokesperson apologized on Torosyan’s behalf, saying “we regret that the minister’s words led to a misunderstanding”. In an apparent effort to defuse tensions, Georgian Health Minister Ekaterine Tikaradze responded to the Armenian Health Ministry’s comment by also referring to Torosyan’s statement as a “misunderstanding”.
As of late May, Armenia had reported nearly 8,000 coronavirus infections and almost 100 deaths. In a recent Facebook post, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who earlier announced that the country would grapple with the disease “for at least a year”, said that Armenia will record 20,000 cases by mid-June if current trends hold.