The coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19), spreading rapidly all over the world, also affected the South Caucasus region, with Georgia reporting its first case on 26 February 2020, Azerbaijan – on 28 February, and Armenia declaring the first case in the country on 1 March. The fact that the region of the South Caucasus saw its first COVID-related cases relatively early can be explained due to the region’s proximity to Iran, one of the epicentres of the pandemic, bordering both Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The overall number of recorded cases and resulted deaths in the region as of 3 May 2020, remains relatively low, compared for instance, to the rest of Eastern Partnership countries (Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine), with Georgia, the country with the lowest number of recorded cases and associated deaths (589 and 9 respectively), followed by Azerbaijan, with 1,894 cases and 25 deaths, and Armenia, the country with the highest number of total confirmed cases standing at 2,386, as well as the total of 35 recorded deaths. It is thought, however, that the real number of cases is much higher, due to the limited testing available.
The continued spread of the virus in the region prompted the governments of all three countries to adopt strict measures aimed at curbing the pandemic, with Armenia and Georgia imposing a state of emergency, and in the case of Azerbaijan, a ‘Special Quarantine’ regime was imposed. Various containment measures adopted by each country to help limit the spread of Covid-19 will be discussed in more detail.
Georgia declared a state of emergency on 21 March, for a month. In addition, on 31 March, the government announced a nationwide curfew, under which individuals were forbidden from leaving their homes between 9:00 pm and 6:00 am.It should be noted that the country’s handling of the pandemic has received words of commendation from various leaders across the world and been cited as a success story, including in an article published in The Washington Times.Among measures adopted by Georgia are the following: the government banned international flights and closed borders, including with neighbouring Azerbaijan and Armenia, which led to full border closure for foreign citizens; Georgian citizens arriving from abroad were put under quarantine; schools and universities were closed. Within the country, the public intercity transport, including buses and railway, was suspended. Other social prevention measures included a ban on gatherings of over three people and closure of all shops, except supermarkets, pharmacies, petrol stations, post offices and banks. Targeted lockdowns were also put in place, including the entire municipalities of Marneuli and Bolnisi (158,000 people) that were put under quarantine. This later resulted in farmers protesting in Marneuli against the government’s policy. Another controversy was caused by the Georgian Orthodox Church, whose continued services, despite the containment measures adopted by the government, became the subject of criticism.
On 24 April, the anti-crisis plan was announced by Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, according to which “the country will spend 3.5 billion GEL (about 1.10b USD/1.02b EUR) on managing the crisis, of which 1.035 billion GEL will be directed at social support of citizens, 2.11 billion GEL will be directed at the economy and entrepreneurs, while 350 million GEL will be spent on the health care of each citizen.” The Georgian PM also pointed out that the amount mentioned does not cover the post-crisis economic recovery period. Previously, the government announced an early economic stimulus package, with hundreds of millions of USD in direct aid to businesses, payment deferral of property taxes and income taxes, and emergency funds flowing into hospitals and the healthcare system among others included in the package.
Starting from 27 April, some restrictions were gradually lifted, among which travelling by car and taxi, online retail, delivery services on any type of product, and the operation of open agrarian markets. However, the aforementioned will not be applied to the municipalities that have been placed under strict quarantine. Also, as an exception, anytime between 27-28 April, citizens were allowed to leave or enter the country’s capital Tbilisi to return to their place of residence, as well as some other cities, including the country’s second and third largest cities of Kutaisi and Batumi. After which, all other restrictions, including the curfew, have continued to remain in force.
Countries across the world have been supporting Georgia both financially and through humanitarian assistance. This included the United Kingdom that donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to Georgian Armed Forces, worth GEL 100,000 (USD 31,200). Germany sent 2,000 RNA (ribonucleic acid) extraction kits, Slovakia allocated additional funds worth EUR 44,198 to support the work of Georgian civil society organisations (CSOs) aimed at mitigating the Covid-19 pandemic’s effects on the country. China and South Korea were also among the countries sending humanitarian aid to Georgia.
The PMCG research identified three possible scenarios for Georgia’s economic development as a result of the pandemic and identified the five sectors that are likely to be most affected, among which: 1. Arts; 2. Entertainment and recreation; 3. Accommodation and food services; 4. Transport and storage; 5. Wholesale and retail trade. Tourism and the entire business related to this segment was expected to be affected the most. ‘Professional, scientific and technical activities’, ‘public administration’ and ‘mining’ are three of the five sectors identified by PMCG as those likely to be least affected.
Although Azerbaijan has not gone as far as to declare a state of emergency, a strict quarantine regime was imposed in the country on March 24. Azerbaijan’s nationwide quarantine was preceded by several measures taken by the authorities to prevent the spread of the virus, among which was the border closure, including the border with neighbouring Iran, one of the main hotspots of the pandemic, and closure of all educational institutions as well as other non-vital activities. Measures became even stricter with the government’s declaration of a ‘Special Quarantine’ regime in the country. Restrictions were imposed on travel to and from the capital – Baku, and other cities in the Absheron Peninsula and adjacent regions were isolated from the rest of the country. Public events, such as Novruz celebrations and the Grand Prix were cancelled or postponed. Among other measures introduced by the government was the prohibition of gatherings of ten or more people, shutting of large stores, shopping centres and restaurants. Individuals over the age of 65 were not allowed to leave their homes, those permitted were required to alert authorities before doing so, by sending a text message to a designated number, indicating the reason. While journalists and media workers were among those allowed to move freely around the cities, concerns were raised by some civil society representatives regarding measures introduced by the government to fight misinformation during the pandemic.
Azerbaijan introduced a broad economic support programme, with ten support packages amounting to AZN 2.5 billion (USD 1.5 billion). The first package targets the four sectors of the economy to be hit the hardest, including tourism.The financial support to entrepreneurs in the form of tax benefits ranges from 250 AZN to a maximum of 5,000 AZN.The the government announced social assistance plans to help those in need and 70 million AZN were allocated for this purpose. Some experts say this is an insufficient amount. Residents were allowed to pay for some of their utility bills at a reduced rate.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the country has been taking gradual steps towards repatriating its nationals from abroad, while constantly appealing to its citizens “that gathering at the [Russia-Azerbaijan] border checkpoint is not an option.” The ongoing border closure has been further extended until 31 May.
Although on 1 May, it was announced that the quarantine regime in the country has been extended until 31 May, due to the country’s slowing infection rate, the government has started moving towards a gradual lifting of restrictions across the country, with many small businesses, including beauty salons and barber shops, being allowed to open. Some other restrictions, including transport-related, have also been lifted in other regions of the country and in the exclave of Nakhchivan, but not in the country’s capital Baku as well as its second and third-largest cities.
As of 30 April, “a total of 143,079 coronavirus tests were carried out”. In its fight against the pandemic, Azerbaijan received support – financial and humanitarian – from the governments across the world, with the United States donating USD 1.7 million, the European Union (EU) – EUR 14 million, Russia sending 79 packs of test kits, and China sending medical necessities, including medical masks. It should also be noted that since the beginning of the crisis, Azerbaijan has been both a recipient as well as a donor: the country assisted both financially, 5 million AZN were sent to neighbouring Iran and through humanitarian aid to China.
As a result of the pandemic-induced crisis, Azerbaijan’s economy is losing an average of USD 80 million per day. A sharp decrease in oil prices that coincided with the pandemic is one of the major contributing factors: revenues from crude oil dropped significantly in April. Due to the current uncertainty as to oil prices, experts are hesitating in declaring the extent of the exact damage to the country’s economy. However, so far Azerbaijan has managed to control the situation in relation to currency depreciation. Azerbaijan’s gradual lifting of restrictions, aimed at initiating a stable economic recovery while avoiding the second wave of infections, if goes as planned, could help the country “emerge from the crisis, becoming a regional model for appropriately balancing economic recovery with public health.”
Before declaring a state of emergency on 16 March, Armenia had already taken precautionary measures with the government’s cancellation of the visa-free regime with China at the end of January and closing the Armenia-Iran land border on 24 February. Schools and universities were first closed on 2 March but then reopened on 9 March as no new cases were confirmed.
However, further developments prompted the Armenian government to declare a state of emergency. As a result, the constitutional referendum scheduled for 5 April was postponed. Along with closing schools and universities again, the government also banned visits to prisons, military bases, psychiatric hospitals and other public and private entities.Citizens were allowed to leave their homes only in exceptional circumstances – to buy food or medicine – and they had to carry ID at all times as well as fill in a special form when leaving. Measures aimed at “extensively preventing” the travel between the country’s capital Yerevan and other regions were put in place. Broad surveillance powers were vested in the authorities as a result of Armenia’s parliament passing amendments on 31 March, which was later criticised by the civil society representatives and the opposition.
Several other controversies, including the Prime Minister’s decision to start campaigning on 10 March for the referendum, emerged during this period, which resulted in the mixed public attitude to the government’s response to the outbreak. The continued activities of the Armenian Church also sparked some criticism. The Church however, adjusted its services immediately after the national state of emergency was declared.
In responding to the crisis, Armenia introduced packages worth up AMD 12.3 billion (USD 25.3 million) to help over 5,000 businesses and 11,000 families. Loan repayment holidays up to USD 19 million were granted to 290,000 individuals and 5,300 legal entities. Other measures included additional financial support to farming cooperatives and social support measures, such as a one-time lump sum worth AMD 68,000 (USD 140) for citizens with limited income who lost their jobs as a result of the crisis. The country received support from the EU worth EUR 92 million to help acquire medical equipment and aid businesses.
On 13 April, following the significant fall of the daily rises in the number of COVID-related cases, the government reopened some sectors of the economy. Then on 28 April, the Armenian PM announced his plans as to fully reopen the country’s economy by allowing all businesses, including cafes and restaurants, to resume their operations in 10 days’ time. In addition, the government announced that restrictions on peoples movement would be lifted from 29 April.This is despite the continuing spread of coronavirus in the country and earlier warning from the Ministry of Health, with the Health Minister saying: “I certainly don’t want this day to come, but one day we will not be able to go after every case and it will not make sense to seal off any town or village anymore.”
The Covid crisis has negatively affected the economy of the country. One of the contributing factors is associated with Covid-related developments in Russia. A sharp decline in tourism is cited as another factor contributing to the negative economic situation. The drop in the copper price and the closure of both of Armenia’s functioning land borders – with Georgia and Iran – will have an additional negative impact on the country’s economy.
Written by Vahid Aliyev
About the Author: Vahid Aliyev is an independent researcher who obtained his Master of Laws in Law, including War Law: International Law of Armed Conflict (IHL), from University College London (UCL). He has been working, interning, and volunteering for the various UK and US-based NGOs. Previously, he wrote and published the book on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict based on his Independent Research Essay at UCL, as well as articles and background papers in the areas of IHL, international security, and peace and conflict studies.
Photo: Baku during Covid measures (https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/azerbaijan-tightens-measures-against-covid-19/1783071)
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