Monday, 21 Sep 2020

How ‘three musketeers’ helped Georgia fight virus

Georgia is enjoying the distinction of being included in a list of 15 non-EU states the European Union considers safe enough to open its borders to. It’s the only former Soviet republic to achieve that status.

Fewer than 1,000 cases of Covid-19 have been registered, and 15 people have died out of a population of 3.7 million. A group of public scientists, dubbed the three musketeers, are being praised for steering the Caucasus state’s successful response to the pandemic.

By comparison, coronavirus has been raging in neighbouring Armenia, a country of similar size.

Hundreds of new cases of Covid-19 are being registered there every day, the total number of infections has exceeded 26,000 and the death toll stands at nearly 500.

How did Georgia do it?

Georgia’s first Covid-19 case was registered at the end of February. The government’s response was swift.

By mid-March all schools, universities and non-essential businesses were closed and public transport was suspended.

After the introduction of a state of emergency on 21 March, large gatherings and intra-city travel were banned. Nightly curfews were introduced.

During Orthodox Easter, Georgia’s most important religious holiday, the authorities banned private transport and closed cemeteries.

“We took note of the pandemic’s threat a month before the first confirmed case,” Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia told the BBC via email. “Given our country’s specifics, such as our location and small size, we could not use the examples of other countries.”

An information campaign and regular updates were led by the country’s top scientists and Georgia’s National Centre for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC).

The NCDC’s Lugar Laboratory has been a constant target of Russian disinformation, which has accused it of being part of a US secret bio-weapons programme.

But its scientists have led the country’s fight against the pandemic.

More from Georgia – and Russia’s relations with it

Who are the ‘musketeers’?

In Georgia, the NCDC’s scientists have become widely respected for their decision-making.

The trio included the head of the NCDC, Amiran Gamkrelidze, the man in charge of the Lugar lab, Paata Imnadze, and the main virologist, Tengiz Tsertsvadze, who is head of Tbilisi’s infectious diseases, Aids and immunology research centre.

Another popular figure was the face of the public health campaign, Marina Egubaia, who is medical head of Tbilisi’s infectious diseases hospital.

There are now 19 laboratories across Georgia testing for coronavirus.

And on 30 June, the head of the NCDC, Amiran Gamrekhelidze, detailed Georgia’s success.

“By the gold standard we have made almost 30,000 PCR tests per million of our population. The recovery rate has risen to 86%, but unfortunately we had 15 deaths which represents 1.6%. Compared to global rates it is very low.”

Why did it work?

Georgia’s government has thanked the public for complying with its directives.

There have been heavy penalties for those caught breaking the rules during the state of emergency – $1,000 fines for individuals and over $3,000 in fines for violations by businesses.

“Stay at Home” warnings were digitally displayed at bus stops, and mobile phone operators broadcast the same message on people’s devices.

Despite a typically high degree of political polarisation, Georgian society broadly supported efforts to combat the epidemic.

The prime minister said the co-operation of Georgians and their “exemplary social responsibility in observing all relevant instructions and recommendations” had helped flatten the curve of infections.

The big test came on Easter Sunday when there were fears that thousands would attend midnight mass services in churches across the country.

The country’s powerful Orthodox Church went ahead with ceremonies and refused to stop using common spoons for holy communion, but most people followed the advice of the scientists and stayed home.

Neighbouring countries

Armenia, which (to date) has registered nearly 27,000 cases of Covid-19, started easing lockdown measures at the end of April, gradually reopening the economy in May.

Its health minister, Arsen Torosyan, told the BBC that the number of new infections was soaring, but that the country could no longer afford to stay shut.

“We decided to live with the virus regardless of the numbers. We don’t have an end goal to eradicate it. Because it is impossible. If we have to close borders for a year, close businesses for months and years we will die from other causes.”

Neighbouring Azerbaijan also continues to register hundreds of new cases every day.

Its critics have accused the government of using authoritarian methods to fight the pandemic – without success. Images on social media have been widely shared of police dragging people in their underpants from their homes for breaking quarantine.

Restrictions lifted

Many Georgian businesses and restaurants have reopened. The wearing of masks is obligatory in indoor public spaces and there are tight rules on distancing and restrictions on large gatherings.

The Georgian government had been hoping to open its borders for international travellers from 1 July. That has now been postponed, so prospects for the country’s tourism sector this year are bleak.

The head of the NCDC remains cautious.

“If Georgia looks like an island and an oasis between the surrounding countries, it does not give us the right to rest for a minute,” Dr Gamrekhelidze told the BBC.

“The fact that we only have daily new cases in single figures doesn’t give us the right to relax at all. We need to be in a state of constant readiness.”

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