Tbilisi, Georgia, November 2020
The story of the Pandemic in Georgia is very much one of two parts: the initial response was rapid, effective and valued human life above all else — placing Georgia amongst the top performing countries at preventing the spread of the virus. What has happened since Summer is the polar opposite — we now have one of the highest infection rates in the world with hospitals overstretched and people not heeding warnings to maintain social distance and act responsibly.
How does this happen? How do you go from being one of the best to one of the worst? As always there are no simple answers, instead there are layers of erosion made up of complacency, indifference, self-interest and cold-heartedness. What struck us in March, April and May was how brilliant the pandemic response was — the government effectively handing over the reins to a body of three wise men who made policy and set the rules. There were limits of private car use, curfews to prevent going out at night and also intercity travel bans. All of this was cumbersome and made life much harder and unpleasant — but there was a social contract in place, people understood that the hospitals couldn’t cope with crises as we saw happening in Europe and thus acted responsibly.
Around the world media were reporting how well Georgia had managed the outbreak of infections and kept these at a minimum, how track and trace was working perfectly and how Georgia would stand to profit as a travel-destination in the post-pandemic world. Sometimes praise can come too early and sometimes it can have deadly effects. It appears that this is what’s behind the reversal in fortunes of this plucky nation. We endured closed borders from March onwards and in many ways those borders are still closed. My father passed away in England in May this year and it was impossible to travel — in large part because I did not know how I could get back as a non-citizen. Those questions are still very much open to us who choose to make Georgia our home.
We have gone from sacrificing our freedoms, our work, family relationships and friendships to prevent a pandemic to having a pandemic imported by negligence. Truck drivers were permitted to com into Georgia from Turkey with very few health checks — largely to the Western Port City of Batumi. It is well known that truck drivers indulge in the delights of what is available in a city with a nightlife scene. Unsurprisingly the first uncontrolled outbreaks of the virus were in Batumi in the summer. In addition to this travellers from France and Germany — two countries with high infection rates were allowed to travel to Georgia without any testing, travellers from Latvia were also permitted entry. As Summer faded towards Autumn it was only a question of when the virus would reach the capital city Tbilisi and become a pandemic — over 1/3 of Georgia’s population is centred on Tbilisi where there is crowded public transport and people living in close-quarters — people having weddings, people having feasts and general believing that because sacrifices were made earlier in the year things would be ok. Sadly they are not.
We have a decimated economy which was over-reliant on tourism. Elections were held on the 31st October and opposition parties allege that there was voter fraud and that the election was stolen. Huge rallies were held, few people wore masks or kept distance from one-another. The cold of winter is setting in and 2020 feels like a series of wasted opportunities. People who own genuine businesses like my Polish friend who owns a winery with vineyards in several locations were not able to get tested and enter Georgia safely, and so could not make wine this year himself; there are hundreds of such stories. Whilst the sun may well shine brightly low on the horizon there will be little real warmth this winter; many families will not be able to afford heating, it’s likely that theft and crime will rise as people become desperate for money. Others may engage in illegal logging as was common practice in the dark times of the early 90’s after the collapse of the USSR. What we can be sure of is that the people and the country will feel the effects of the mismanagement of the pandemic response from midsummer onwards for many years to come.
I’d like to conclude this postcard on a positive note because hope genuinely matters. If anyone can get through and manage it’s Georgians — they’ve seen worse crises in recent memory and made it through. This country has huge untapped potential in agriculture, value-added food production, winemaking and of course tourism. This summer we made a series of videos with natural winemakers all over the country — the news from this trip is positive; the quality and consistency of Georgian wine is better than it’s ever been — winemakers are receiving more export orders and building capacity to serve this demand — as Georgians say “Gaumarjos” — Cheers!