Just three months after the novel coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, the disease had already overrun the world, shutting down entire countries, regardless of political systems or geography. Assessing different countries’ responses to the novel coronavirus is a difficult undertaking because the data that countries collect about their response to COVID-19 is not uniform, given the quirks of epidemiology and the different ways of enumerating infections. In short, we are still not sure to what extent we can compare like with like because the way countries record the cases and their resulting deaths are different.
Still, it would be illuminative to assess the dynamics of responses to the COVID-19 within loosely similar frameworks. This job is made easier by the fact that one common choice that all countries face is the one between public health and the economy. Another is the impact of infection mitigation efforts on civil liberties. Wherever they may be, countries weigh these factors and throttle mitigation efforts in a delicate balancing act to avoid destroying the economy and overwhelming hospitals until a vaccine is ready.
So how have the three countries of the South Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – responded to COVID-19? Though making the comparison is difficult, they do have common societal risk factors. For example, across all three countries, low-income, traditional households with multiple generations living together is common, increasing the likelihood of virus spread. Levels of development and infrastructure are also relatively comparable. Moreover, each of the countries’ first confirmed cases were individuals who had travelled to Iran – one of the earliest hotspots outside of China. Indeed, all three countries of the South Caucasus, were heading into April all doing relatively well. In May, however, things changed when cases in Armenia skyrocketed as strict lockdown restrictions were lifted, while official case numbers in Azerbaijan also grew to a lesser extent, Georgia has managed to keep its infection rates low.
Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has taken the leading role in the pandemic response, regularly taking to social media to urge the public to wash their hands frequently, wear masks and refrain from embracing or kissing those they don’t live with. Armenian Health Minister Arsen Torosyan, has also emerged as a leader in the pandemic response, being a reassuring presence in the media, explaining to the public the latest medical knowledge about the virus and giving the public the most current public health advice. Decisions about measures to mitigate the spread of the pandemic have drawn from his recommendations, together with Pashinyan’s cabinet.
Armenia reacted fairly quickly to the pandemic threat, suspending the recently-introduced visa exemption for Chinese citizens on January 31. Just over three weeks later, on February 24, Armenia closed its border with Iran, allowing only the return of citizens to their home country. Armenia’s first coronavirus case was confirmed on March 1, 2020: an Armenian citizen who had returned from Iran. In early March, Armenian officials began taking incoming travellers’ temperatures at the airport and at border checkpoints, a measure Armenia took sooner than other countries, particularly those in Europe. Those entering Armenia from countries considered to have heavy infection rates were required to self-report and be quarantined for two weeks if exhibiting symptoms. The Armenian government also arranged for the repatriation of Armenian citizens stranded in countries already under lockdown, such as Italy, meeting them at Yerevan’s Zvartnots International Airport and transporting them to quarantine centers in Armenia. Flights from Italy were suspended by the carrier, Ryanair, on March 11. Around this time, however, Armenia’s first cluster emerged in Vagharshapat, after a woman who had travelled to Italy took part in her son’s engagement party and infected several guests, resulting in the first known case of community spread in the country. The city of Vagharshapat (Etchmiadzin) was put under strict lockdown soon afterward, with individuals not allowed to leave or enter the city without special permission.
A nationwide state of emergency was declared from March 16 to April 14 in order to slow the spread of the virus. During the state of emergency, it was forbidden to hold or participate in gatherings of more than 20 people – a higher number than Armenia’s neighbors. All businesses except for those deemed essential – grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks – were forced to close. Grocery stores served only the elderly from 10 a.m. to noon. Schools and universities suspended classes and began to introduce distance learning, and most state employees shifted to teleworking. Intercity and interregional transportation was suspended, and municipal transportation vehicles were disinfected on a daily basis. Travel between Armenia and Georgia was closed, and entry to those arriving from countries considered heavily affected by COVID-19 was barred. At the height of the restrictions, people needed justification to leave their homes and had to write it on a form that they carried with them, along with their ID.
While these steps were successful in slowing down the spread of the virus, as the state of emergency went on, the public began to increasingly flout the restrictions. Using data from Yandex, an analysis of social activity across the South Caucasus suggested that Armenians were self-isolating less than Georgians or Azerbaijanis.
Armenia’s politically polarized information space, already rife with anti-government disinformation, has been inundated by conspiracy theories related to the pandemic. COVID-19-related disinformation in Armenia has been shown to be promoted by domestic forces aligned with former officials and by Moscow; moreover anti-vaccine disinformation originating from American websites is also being translated and disseminated. One Armenian health news website found to have been funded inadvertently by the United States State Department called the coronavirus a “fake pandemic” and vaccines “biological weapons.” Health Minister Torosyan worried that these conspiracy theories impacted the public’s vigilance in the face of the pandemic threat. While it is difficult to prove that this wave of disinformation has been a contributing factor to Armenia’s high infection rate, public health risk messaging is already a huge challenge in normal times; during a global pandemic with rapidly changing information, the task becomes more difficult by orders of magnitude.
Perhaps anticipating this danger, the government brought in sweeping restrictions on media reporting around the novel coronavirus in March, allowing only official information to be published. Journalists and civil society organizations strongly criticized these measures and some of the restrictions were lifted a few days later.
Armenia extended the state of emergency until June 13. Despite this, Armenia began to gradually open the country again in an effort to balance economic considerations with restrictions on freedom of movement, even as infection rates in Armenia began to spike. Starting from May 4, Armenians could eat at restaurants and bars, albeit only in outdoor seating; factories, dry cleaners and beauty salons were allowed to reopen as well. Pashinyan stated that these decisions were based on a change of strategy to decentralize the fight against the virus in which people would be responsible for themselves.
Pashinyan repeatedly asserted over the month of May that the public must share the responsibility for limiting the spread of the virus and complained that many people were not taking the danger seriously. He restated the importance of strict enforcement and began asking people to share images of those violating the pandemic rules with social gatherings to his Facebook Page. There was a blowback as the approach was considered public shaming and later official messaging showed officials handing out free face masks.
By May 19, there were so many active cases that those with mild symptoms were asked to remain at home for treatment as the hospital capacity of 3,000-4,000 beds had been reached. Underscoring the seriousness of the pandemic’s spread in the country, on June 1, Pashinyan, his wife and their three daughters all tested positive for coronavirus, even as they were all asymptomatic. A week later, Pashinyan tested negative. Wearing masks in public is now required in all public spaces, including outdoors, with police officers issuing fines for non-compliance. Around May 24, authorities began tackling the monitoring and enforcement of social distancing protocols across the country by forming 119 monitoring groups comprised of police and Ministry of Emergency Situations staff.
At the beginning of July, over 2,500 hospital beds were allocated to COVID-19 patients, 290 of which were ICU beds, in nineteen medical centers across Armenia (seven located in the regions and twelve in Yerevan). At this point, the healthcare sector remained overloaded and the Government’s strategy was to urge citizens to change their behaviour and cooperate with authorities. During one of the daily briefings, PM Nikol Pashinyan said that the Government will be required to reimpose strict restrictions, if and when the healthcare sector reaches a point when it is no longer able to expand its capacity and provide support to all those patients who need treatment.
Despite the fact that the situation in the country remained concerning, on July 8, by the decision of Tigran Avinyan, the Warden of the Special Commission, exceptions were made for wearing a face mask. People with chronic respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or bronchitis accompanied with acute respiratory failure, as well as those with chronic heart failure (third and fourth classes), were allowed to not wear a face mask in open public spaces. Such people, however, are required to have a medical document confirming their illness.
On July 13, the Government extended the SOE for the fourth time until August 12. PM Pashinyan clarified that if the Government does not extend the SOE, all the anti-epidemic rules and guidelines will de jure lose their force. He went on to say that the Government understands that it cannot keep extending the SOE and is working on a draft legislation which will allow the Government to enforce the anti-epidemic rules and restrictions not only during a state of emergency but also during an emergency situation. Active case numbers and daily deaths began to decline rapidly in August, even as several Western European countries were experiencing a second wave. Despite the decline, the Government extended the SOE for the fifth time until September 11. According to new regulations, foreign citizens are allowed to enter the territory of Armenia. Although they are required to self-isolate for 14 days, if they test negative for the virus, the self-isolation requirement can also be lifted. People are allowed to hold strikes and rallies, but they need to secure permits and follow the anti-epidemic regulations (wear a face mask and maintain physical distance). Celebrations and gatherings, both in open and closed spaces, are also allowed, but the number of participants cannot exceed 40 people.
Azerbaijan is a more difficult country to analyze in terms of its COVID-19 response, as the country’s media is not free and verified information from independent sources is difficult to obtain. Almost all independent media outlets covering the country operate from outside of Azerbaijan. Still, based on the numbers of reported infections, it would seem that Azerbaijan is in the middle of the pack in terms of its pandemic response success.
Like Armenia, Azerbaijan was in a tricky position by bordering Iran, one of the early hotspots of the outbreak. Azerbaijan’s first case emerged on February 28: a Russian citizen who had travelled from Iran to Azerbaijan. As Arzu Geybullaeva reports, the authorities quarantined arrivals from Iran early in the crisis. But after videos emerged on social media about the poor conditions of the hospitals they were confined to, the head of one hospital was dismissed and another hospital was surrounded by security services when the quarantined individuals attempted to leave. To some criticism, Azerbaijan was late in closing its border with Iran. In fact, it was one of the last countries to do so, closing the border on February 29.
In early March, the country began instating increasingly strict constraints on public movement. On March 2, the government announced the closure of educational institutions until March 9, later extending the date to March 27, and then again to April 20 and finally to June 15. It then closed its border with Georgia on March 13 and the border with Russia on March 16. At the beginning of March, schools and universities were closed.
Then Azerbaijan instated a lockdown on March 14, for an initial period of 14 days which has since been extended to June 15. Azerbaijan’s lockdown measures barred weddings, funerals, and other gatherings, as well as ordered the closure of cinemas, museums and theaters. Restaurants and cafes had to close by 9 p.m. A special body within the Council of Ministers was tasked with cracking down on those who spread disinformation related to the pandemic. On March 17, municipalities began to reduce public transportation and restrict intercity travel.
Toward the end of March, more restrictions were introduced and more preventative measures were imposed, including the closure of large shopping centers for one month. Individuals were required to obtain official permission for outings until April 20 using an SMS-based system. People over 65 years old were barred from going outside, with a provision for visits from social services for those that live alone, although the roll out of that program has not been perfect. All public events were postponed, inter-city and inter-district transportation was suspended, and cafes and restaurants’ opening hours were further limited to between noon and 3 p.m.
In April, Azerbaijan began restricting travel to and from the country. Entry into and exit from Azerbaijan was banned by air and road from April 5, with the exception of cargo and freight. On June 4, Azerbaijan Airways announced that all airports would remain closed until July 1 after having suspended air traffic in March.
These measures seem to have resulted in flattening the curve to the extent that Azerbaijan has been able to provide hospitalization for everyone testing positive for COVID-19 throughout the crisis, a possible reason for its relatively low number of deaths related to the virus.
Part of the debate about global responses to the novel coronavirus is the question of civil liberties. In Azerbaijan’s case, the government used the virus as a pretext to clamp down on the opposition. In March, the country’s National Assembly passed amendments to the Law on Information with the stated goal of curbing disinformation around the virus, which the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) condemned as too far-reaching. The government detained and harassed activists for alleged violations of the lockdown rules, and President Ilham Aliev attempted to give the fight against “national traitors” new urgency within the context of the emergency situation. Towards the end of March, a wave of repression against critics of the government, which Human Rights Watch characterized as an abuse of restrictions intended to mitigate the spread of the virus. Most of these individuals had criticized the conditions of government-run quarantine centers or for not providing financial compensation to those struggling from the pandemic’s economic toll.
While the economies of all three countries of the South Caucasus are being negatively impacted by COVID-19, Azerbaijan’s position is unique in that it has taken a double hit as an oil-exporting country. The price of oil collapsed in April as global economic distress sapped demand in the wake of supply increases by Saudi Arabia and Russia. Despite this, officials in Azerbaijan remain optimistic about economic forecasts. As of late May, the government announced $1.5 billion in social assistance packages to citizens, as well as $590 million in tax breaks. Still, shadow labor makes up a large portion of the economy, making it much more difficult to provide meaningful state assistance to those affected.
On April 27, the body coordinating the pandemic response in Azerbaijan began relaxing lockdown measures. On May 18, the lockdown restrictions which required Azerbaijanis to get permission for outings were lifted. After this, the numbers of infected began to climb again. On June 3, the government made it mandatory to wear a mask in public. Temporary, piecemeal restrictions are still being introduced with, for example, a very stringent weekend lockdown curfew for the long weekend of June 3, banning people from all outings, stopping all public transportation and the use of private vehicles, and closing even grocery stores and pharmacies from midnight on Saturday to 6am Monday.
On June 19, some of the lockdown measures were reinstated and the quarantine regime was extended until August 1. Also, on June 21, a strict quarantine regime was reintroduced in some of the major cities and regions of the country and residents were allowed to leave the house for two hours to go to a grocery store or pharmacy but needed to get permission from the police. According to the introduced restrictions, shopping centers, museums and beauty salons were closed and gatherings of more than five people were prohibited. After the restrictions were introduced, the Azerbaijani Parliament adopted a draft bill increasing the penalty for non-compliance with the anti-epidemic rules from $59 to $117. At the beginning of July, surveillance cameras were used to track violations of the rules. The authorities justified their move saying that it is aimed at protecting public health, while residents raised concerns that the bans will only become stricter.
Considering the high number of daily COVID-19 cases, the strict quarantine regime was extended until August 31 but some of the restrictions were lifted. Since August 5, residents of the capital Baku and other major cities and regions are no longer required to have permission from the police before leaving the house. Since then the country has moved towards easing restrictions and allowed the operation of outdoor cafes and restaurants with certain restrictions, and opened the roads between cities and regions.
Georgia’s response was characterized by extremely stringent restrictions, which saw it essentially isolated from the world; measures were taken early and were consistently enforced. As a result of its early emphasis on containment and prevention, Georgia has not just performed the best among the three countries in the region, it has become an international model of success.
Even by mid-February, proactive border checks, including temperature profiling and travel history checks were already underway. Georgia restricted flights to Iran on February 23, but the first coronavirus case in Georgia was still confirmed on February 26: a Georgian citizen who had travelled to Iran for business. Georgia closed the border to Iranian visitors, while Georgian citizens arriving from Iran were quarantined. Over the next weeks, arrivals from hotspots around the world and the people they had interacted with were quarantined in state-run institutions and at home.
Georgian health officials began asking the public to refrain from kissing and shaking hands to greet loved ones. When a woman who had recently returned from Italy was confirmed to have the virus on February 28, Georgia suspended flights to Italy. After the third case was discovered on February 29, schools in Georgia were closed. Soon after, strict lockdown measures were introduced. On March 16, all foreigners were banned from entering the country. On March 20, the government closed all shops except those deemed essential, such as grocery stores, pharmacies and banks. The next day, Georgia declared a one-month nationwide state of emergency, later extending it to May 22. On March 30, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia imposed a 9 p.m. curfew, shut down public transportation and banned gatherings of more than three people. Intercity travel by public transport was also banned. All citizens must carry ID when leaving the house, and people over 70 were only allowed to leave home to go to the grocery store or pharmacy.
Public trust in the government seems to be at the root of Georgia’s success. In Georgia, government officials put public health experts in the driver’s seat in coordinating the public policy response. As Giorgi Lomsadze reports, the ruling Georgian Dream party has been criticized and lost a good deal of public trust over the years for the perception that government appointments are not based on merit, but rather on loyalty to the billionaire chairperson of the party Bidzina Ivanishvili. However, putting very capable public health experts in leading positions during the pandemic helped grow public support for the government. Georgia’s public health officials – most notably the head of the National Center for Disease Control Amiran Gamkrelidze and his deputy Paata Imnadze – have become prominent media figures, communicating regularly with the public about developments in public health. Georgia also administered a massive public awareness campaign. While, oppositionists did protest in favour of opening the economy back up, it is noteworthy that they did not oppose pandemic mitigation measures outright, only disputed their stringency.
Most of the cases in Georgia have arisen from clusters, the largest of which was in Marneuli, a city with a majority Azerbaijani population. Marneuli was also the site for anti-lockdown protests, suggesting some degree of failure in terms of communication with non-Georgian citizens.
On May 4, Georgia began lifting limited restrictions, including rescinding the curfew for Batumi and Kutaisi and then for Tbilisi. They have announced a long-term plan to gradually open up the country. It has done so well that it is planning to open the country up in July to tourists from countries considered to have been successful in tracking and treating the coronavirus and only to regions declared to be free from the disease.
When the European Union (EU) published the list of fifteen countries, whose citizens can travel to the EU starting from July 1, Georgia was the only post-Soviet country that was not affected by the travel ban and was included in the “safe list.” Although the authorities were planning to open the country up in July, they postponed the opening just days before the scheduled date. Instead Georgia opened its borders for just five EU countries; Germany, France, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Citizens and residents of those five countries will be placed under a mandatory quarantine, only if they visited countries with a high risk of infection.
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