The epidemiological situation in Georgia is critical and the health sector is struggling to handle the pandemic. In accordance with last week’s data, there are 4,000 confirmed daily cases on average. As clarified by the epidemiologists, this figure is in fact much higher and at least 10,000 people become infected daily by COVID-19. There has been a critical rise in the coronavirus death toll as well and nearly 40 infected patients are dying on average every day. In the spring-summer period, Georgia had only individual cases of COVID-19 deaths.

At the first stage of the pandemic in spring and summer, Georgia had one of the lowest virus-spread figures in the whole of Europe. However, the situation altered in autumn and the country moved into the so-called red zone. As of 22 November 2020’s data, Georgia was number-one in the world according to last week’s figures in terms of confirmed cases per 100,000 inhabitants. [1] The picture remains the same in terms of new confirmed cases of infection.

As of 3 December 2020, Georgia ranks 17th in the world in terms of the total confirmed coronavirus cases per one million inhabitants [2] during the so-called second wave of infection. In terms of the death toll, Georgia performs relatively better and ranks 45th with 348 deaths per one million inhabitants.

Of note is that over one-third of infected patients is treated at home or in COVID-hotels. As of 3 December 2020, there are 21,655 active cases in the country and only 6,561 are under hospital supervision.

FactCheck reviews how Georgia ended up in a critically hard epidemiological situation and the mistakes that were made.

Country Under a Two-Month Lockdown: How We Managed to Curb the Epidemic

At the first stage of the coronavirus outbreak, the Government of Georgia was focused on curbing the spread of the virus and took aggressive measures for prevention. As with other countries taking appropriate measures, Georgia was not an exception in this regard. On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus as a pandemic. At the first stage of the virus outbreak, the WHO called upon countries to take swift and aggressive actions to fight the coronavirus. On 17 March 2020, the EU shut the external border to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Many countries resorted to tight regulations to curb the virus and declared states of emergency (Sweden was an exception). Perhaps, this was justified at the outset since the world had very scarce information about the new virus. The countries needed to win the time to use their gained knowledge for the better management of the pandemic.

At the first stage of the virus outbreak, Georgia had the lowest figures of infections and deaths per one million inhabitants as compared to other European countries. This was because the virus entered Georgia at a relatively late period and the government started to tighten measures at a very early stage. In addition, Georgia imposed a lockdown before the spread of the virus whilst other countries took strict measure only after the epidemiological outbreak and declared states of emergency.

On 28 January 2020 prior to the first confirmed case in the country, the Government of Georgia established an Interagency Coordination Council on COVID-19. The Council consists of the members of the government, MPs, Presidential Administration officials and health authorities. On 29 January, flights to China were suspended and air travel to Iran was stopped on 23 February.

On 26 February 2020, first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Georgia. A Georgian national, coming from Iran through Azerbaijan, tested positive for COVID-19. This person was taken to the infectious disease hospital immediately from the border. The further spread of the virus in Georgia is mostly related with travel to Italy.

On 1 March 2020, the educational process in schools, kindergartens and universities was suspended. The coordination council issued a recommendation to cancel mass events in places of public gathering. At that time, there were three confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Georgia. From 6 March, a 14-day mandatory quarantine or self-isolation was announced for passengers travelling from high-risk zones. After the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, all public and private entities to started telework from 12 March. The measures were gradually tightened. A nationwide state of emergency was imposed on 21 March 2020 according to a decree issued by the President of Georgia. At that time, there were 49 confirmed coronavirus cases in the country. On 21 April 2020, the state of emergency was prolonged until 22 May 2020 even through the epidemiological situation was relatively stable. Under the total lockdown, the country’s economic activity was basically halted.

In spite of numerous statements of the Georgian authorities that a balance had to be preserved between the economy and preventive measures to curb the spread of the infection, their decisions demonstrated that keeping the scale of the epidemic to a minimum was made a priority at any economic price. Even under stringent regulations, there is a rational limit and if the government goes beyond that limit, the economic price would be much higher as compared to additional improvements in the epidemiological situation. The government even banned economic activities which were not associated with increased risks such as, for instance, the online trade of non-food products. Although such a form of trade contains minimum risks of the spread of the virus and enables keeping partial employment, the excessively harsh regulation in this regard (without getting commensurate result) also stopped this economic activity. The epidemiological situation started to deteriorate in September and the need to tighten restrictions was again brought on the agenda. However, given the damage inflicted to the economy at the first stage of the pandemic, the imposition of the same strict regulations bears serious economic risks.

Green Zone and Summer Complacency

Throughout the entire summer, Georgia was the so-called epidemiological green zone. The restrictions were basically lifted in summer which was followed by crowded events. Given the closed borders, mobility, characteristic to internal tourism, started to rise. The government was relaxed to some extent and became complacent. Moreover, in some cases, the authorities themselves breached their own recommendations. At the opening of the Kikvidze Park, the Prime Minister, Giorgi Gakharia, stated: “We are slightly breaching our own recommendations on two hundred people, Tbilisians will forgive us. In summer, a dendrological park was opened on 15 July where crowds and queues appeared from the very first day of opening. Epidemiological safety rules were not observed, although the authorities did not respond to that.

The European Council added Georgia to the list of epidemiologically safe countries and some EU member countries unconditionally opened their borders for Georgia from 1 July. The government kept restrictions on regular flights but the situation within the country was basically left to its own. Georgia resumed air travel with five EU countries from 1 August although some regulations were introduced. According to these regulations, foreign nationals were allowed to enter Georgia without any precondition (quarantine, self-isolation or COVID-19 test) whilst Georgian nationals coming from the same countries were subjected to a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

The WHO announced a second wave of the spread of virus in September. Similarly, as early as in summer, epidemiologists in Georgia were expecting the new wave of the virus in autumn. On 15 June 2020, the Director of the Hospital of Infectious Diseases, Tengiz Tsertsvadze, stated that the virus spread would be curbed in the summer and the second wave would emerge in October-November. The epidemiological outbreak was also made more likely by the rise of respiratory diseases in autumn. On top of that, the regulations in summer were practically meaningless and the country had high mobility which is characteristic to domestic tourism.

As suggested by the health sector, the most effective way to fight the pandemic is to wear a face mask and observe personal hygiene and social distancing rules. These rules were basically neglected in summer. The authorities constant boasting on effective management gave people the illusion of safety. In light of the looming epidemic outbreak in summer and the country’s economy depleted enough to allow tight restrictions again, the summertime “complacency” appeared to be the biggest mistake.

October Election and Failure to Acknowledge the Critical Epidemiological Situation

Since September, confirmed coronavirus cases in Georgia started to rise sharply. The Ajara region has become the hotbed of the virus outbreak. On 10 September 2020, the Prime Minister, Giorgi Gakharia, stated: “The second wave of the pandemic is beginning, although there is no reason to panic and the epidemiological situation is fully under control.”

The epidemiological situation in Georgia deteriorated daily in September-October. In spring and summer, the numbers of confirmed cases were usually several dozens. From September, this figure rose sharply. At the end of September, there were nearly 300 daily confirmed cases. In the first half of October, the number of daily confirmed cases exceeded 500 whilst it passed 1,700 per day by the end of October. The COVID-19 death toll followed the same pattern and increased significantly.

On 17 October 2020, the Georgian Dream Executive Secretary, Irakli Kobakhidze, on air on TV Imedi, sought to “convince” us: “Under a full opening, under a full opening of the economy, under widely opening the borders, we have quite a low figure of COVID-19 spread.”

In October, Georgia moved into the so-called red (alarming) zone. On 7 October 2020, Germany added Georgia to the list of high-risk countries. On 21 October 2020, it was reported that the EU removed Georgia from the list of epidemiologically safe countries.

The authorities did not plan to introduce tighter measures before the elections and limited themselves by imposing minimal regulations. In spite of the deteriorated epidemiological situation, the educational process was renewed across the country for schoolchildren from grades one to six as well as for kindergartens and universities. Given the particular severity of the epidemiological situation, the Ajara region was initially exempt from the resumption of the educational process in classrooms whereas the learning process returned to a distance mode across the rest of the country. The pre-election campaign was carried out as usual and the authorities asserted that the so-called lockdown; that is, strict and large-scale restrictions, would not be imposed.

In the pre-election period, the authorities claimed that the epidemiological situation was “successfully” handled and that there was no cause for alarm. However, when Georgia became the world’s worst affected country in terms of infections per 100,000 inhabitants as early as in November, the authorities started to blame the opposition and people for the critical epidemiological situation. On 24 November 2020, the Deputy Prime Minister, Maia Tskitishvili, stated that the “rising number of infections are related to irresponsible rallies.” The Minister of Health, Ekaterine Tikaradze, made a similar statement. FactCheck would like to remind our readers that Georgia was already in the red zone by the end of October and epidemiologists stated that Georgia would have 3,000-4,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases daily by mid-November.

The Deputy Head of the NCDC, Paata Imnadze, on air on TV Formula, assessed the epidemiological situation as very hard and stated that health system, including the human resource, cannot withstand the pressure. In his interview, Mr Imnadze emphasised that situation in summer was relaxed, especially in the tourist region of Ajara. He stated: “Nobody observed the safety rules (wearing face masks, social distancing) and it was a mistake that we did not demand a tightening of measures.”

The aim of the heavy-handed and radical restrictions during the first wave of the pandemic was to allow the government efficient mobilization to contain the second wave and curb the outbreak of the pandemic. It means that the authorities had to mobilise hospital beds, ventilators, elaborate more efficient at-home treatment methods, get a hotline ready for a maximum workload, prepare for mass testing and elaborate another medical needs management plan apart from COVID-19, etc. In parallel with being complacent and willing to contribute false euphoria and illusions, the authorities are also criticised for their inefficient waste of preparatory time. Prior to the election, the authorities were feeding people with the illusion of the effective management of the epidemiological situation. At the same time, the government endangered the economy in order to gain time, although they did not use that time later.

The Director of the NCDC disagrees with these arguments. As stated by Amiran Gamkrelidze, the preparatory period was used for crisis management, although the scale of the pandemic proved to be larger than expected and this caused the problems which popped up when the health system started to work at full capacity. As stated by Tengiz Tsertsvadze, systemic errors in crisis management were not made and the pandemic was efficiently and adequately handled at different stages.

Renewed “Lockdown”

In accordance with the decision of the Interagency Coordination Council of 26 November 2020, tight restrictions were introduced effective from 28 November 2020 to 31 January 2021. The nationwide restrictions include: a night-time curfew from 21:00 to 05:00, the halting of intercity public transportation (passenger travel), closing of restaurants and other food facilities except for delivery service, closing of gyms and swimming pools, and banning the holding of conferences, training and all kinds of cultural and entertainment events (will be allowed online only).

In addition, municipal transport was suspended and trade facilities (except for except for grocery stores, pet shops, pharmacies, pet pharmacies, chemist and hygiene shops, and newsstands) were closed in large cities – Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, Rustavi, Gori, Poti, Zugdidi and Telavi. Open and closed marketplaces were also closed except for agrarian markets. The period of 3 January to 15 January 2021 was declared as public holidays. In the period from 24 December 2020 to 2 January 2021, restrictions will be relaxed to some extent. Public transport will be resumed throughout the country and shopping malls as well as open and indoor markets will be reopened.

Talks about tightening restrictions because of the critical epidemiological situation started immediately after the end of the election. In spite of the Georgian authorities’ long-term and sufficiently tight restrictions at the initial stage of the pandemic, in case of serious aggravation of epidemiological situation (which is currently a reality), the possibility of painlessly introducing harsh restrictions was significantly reduced. No country has the sufficient resources to allow a long-term lockdown of its economy. Given the economic situation, it would be rational to introduce a small-scale lockdown only. The government’s harsh response under the relatively better epidemiological situation inflicted so much harm to the economy that Georgia is facing the current deteriorated epidemiologic situation with a vastly diminished economic safety cushion.