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Coronavirus in Georgia: 13-19 April newsletter, updates

Georgian government officials and epidemiologists started the week off with stern warnings, most notably with Health Minister Tikaradze saying on April 16 that “if necessary, a full quarantine will be put in place.” Head of the National Centre of Disease Control Amiran Gamkrelidze confirmed the urgency of the situation, adding that the country is but ‘one step’ away from such measures, and that the country is currently ‘playing with fire.’

Director of Bochorishvili Clinic Maka Sologhashvili was unequivocal in stating: “if you don’t stay at home, we won’t have enough medical staff or beds.”

The country had registered 394 cases of coronavirus as of April 19, with 84 people having recovered, and 5,053 in quarantine.

More stringent appeals for residents to stay home and measures to make sure they do so come against a rise in the rate of infection, and concerns that parishioners turning out for the Easter holiday will result in a more severe outbreak of the coronavirus.

In comparison to the week before, the numbers are indeed up, with daily infections at around 20 this week, in comparison to around 12 per day in the week spanning April 6-12.

Other world government and health leaders have made it clear that we’re in this for the long haul. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom said a vaccine is unlikely to appear for at least one year, and that the virus is 10 times more deadly than swine flu. Harvard researchers predict that social distancing will be needed as late as 2022, if not longer.

Despite these worrisome indicators, Georgia remains ahead of the curve – the death toll of Georgian citizens at home (4) remains less than half of that abroad (9).

Looking forward, the Georgian government has already begun reflecting on what steps to take next, a big part of which has included inspecting businesses and clearing them for operations once the state of emergency period has passed.

Financial assistance
Georgia has received impressive financial backing from IFIs in the past week, with at least $3 billion (about one-fifth of Georgia’s annual GDP) pledged for the country by the end of 2020. Roughly half of the sum will go to the public sector, budget and the National Bank of Georgia, while the other $1.5 billion will go to the private sector, largely to commercial banks.

$447 million will come from the IMF, while the European Investment Bank will loan the country 200 million euros. The Asian Development Bank, the EU, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, GDF and FDA will together contribute another $1.5 billion.

Before these pledges, the Georgian government’s external debt was $5.4 billion, and will increase by about $1.5 billion by the end of the year.

The United States has also upped its support for Georgia, providing an additional $600,000 for the Georgian healthcare system, bringing a total of $1.7 million in assistance to the country through USAID, which will” be used to help control and prevent infection and identify cases of the virus. It will include technical assistance to improve Georgia’s response and preparedness for controlling the outbreak, and for communicating information about the emergency.”

The state budget for 2020 will be revised in May given the new circumstances.

Quarantine, containment measures
Entry and exit into Georgia’s four biggest cities – Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi and Rustavi – was suspended on April 14 at 9 p.m. for a minimum of 10 days. Exceptions are being made for medical workers, freight transport, members of the diplomatic corps, employees of utilities companies, journalists, humanitarian missions and several other categories. Individuals whose legal address is registered in a municipality other than that of their current location will be allowed to return home.

The village of Khidiskuri in Khashuri municipality was placed under lockdown on April 13, following the lockdown of Lentekhi on April 11.

The Russian Church of St. John the Theologian was shut on April 14 after its pastor was found to have coronavirus, while the Church of the Assumption in Tskneti was closed when its pastor went into self-isolation after coming into contact with a woman who was later found to have contracted coronavirus. The churches are being disinfected.

Kvemo Kartli Governor Shota Rekhviashvili says there has been a large-scale increase in the spread of the disease in Bolnisi municipality, including five doctors. The city of Bolnisi and Rachisubani in the same municipality were both put in complete isolation on April 17 after a sharp increase in the number of infected individuals, with the total number of cases in Bolnisi municipality alone reaching 47.

950,000 thermal screenings have been carried out at 75 checkpoints across the country since March 22.

New state of emergency restrictions
Starting noon on April 17, private cars were banned from roads entirely until April 21. The ban does not apply to freight transport, distribution vehicles, motorcycles, mopeds or bicycles. The restriction also applies to taxis. Again, exceptions have been made for certain categories.
Individuals engaged in a ‘permitted economic activity’ can receive a pass from the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Economy. If you do not need to travel for work-related purposes, a pass can be obtained by calling the hotline number 144 under necessary circumstances. Those in need of medical treatment can also travel.

The same day, face masks were made mandatory in all shops and enclosed spaces. Legal entities that fail to ensure compliance with the regulation on their premises face a fine of 15,000 GEL.

Cemeteries have been closed across the country for the duration of the Easter holiday, while the state of emergency has been extended until May 10.

The government is still working on a comprehensive plan to help vulnerable groups during the crisis. Finance Minister Ivane Machavariani said on April 14 that a plan would be released in the coming days.

Georgia has not been slow in reacting with new methods to combat the virus.

The government released a mobile application on April 16 for iOS and Android users. The app description claims that no personal information is necessary, and that every app instance is given a unique ID code. The app logs all interactions with other phones (individuals) that span longer than 10 minutes and that take place within a distance of two meters.

If an individual later records that he or she has become infected with coronavirus, the app can ping other individuals who may have been at risk. The infected individual also has the option of recording their contacts and forwarding them to the Ministry of Health. The app requires access to a mobile device’s microphone, as it uses ultrasonic frequency waves to detect the distance between devices. All data is stored exclusively on the phone.

The launch of the app was met with a hiccup after more than 18,000 tried to download the app within just 15 minutes; within the first 24 hours, the application had been down-loaded by more than 151,000 users.

The winning project of a small grants program offered by the Georgian Innovation and Technology Agency, sensor.ge, has come up with a sensor button that will be able to replace or be installed near touch buttons in elevators, ATMs and other facilities in order to avoid touching the button physically. The button reacts when a user places their hand within .5 to 3 centimeters from its surface. GITA has allocated 15,000 GEL to the startup to manufacture 1,000 test sensors.

The Georgian Innovation and Technology Agency has also announced a competition for ideas that will increase the efficiency and speed of the business inspection process, which is certifying whether companies’ operations are in line with the hygiene standards of the Ministry of Health. Applications will be accepted until April 29, and the winner announced on May 1 and awarded with a 10,000 GEL prize.

A company called ‘Respiratori’ says it will soon be able to produce 200,000 to 250,000 face masks within three days time. The company has been founded on the basis of an-other – UV Print – which was has been in development with the help of Produce in Georgia since 2017. The company says it has already received 4 million pre-orders from the Cartu Foundation, which will be given to the state free of charge.

The Georgian government has launched a telegram channel for English-language news related to the StopCov.ge website. You can find and subscribe to it here.

The country’s 144 hotline, which provides information pertaining to the state of emer-gency and quarantine regulations in the country, may soon be made available via SMS.

The Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union announced on April 12 that it would ban the export of buckwheat, rice, onions, garlic, cereals and soy. Up until now, Georgia has received approximately 68% of its buckwheat imports from this market. 11% of the country’s rice and 18% of its onions came from the EAEU as well. Deputy Minister of Agriculture Gela Khanishvili says that Georgia was allegedly aware of the EAEU’s intentions to ban exports of these products two weeks earlier, and made adequate preparations to secure other supply lines.

On a cheerier note:

Georgia can position itself as an attractive destination for investors looking to get out of China, EBRD Caucasus Regional Director Katarina Hansen says, an idea that has been echoed several times over the past week.

While the IMF predicts growth will slow to practically zero this year, the IFI says things will pick up in 2021, with growth rising to 3%.

The Georgian government reacted swiftly to the appearance of a number of fake Facebook accounts using the name of head of the National Center for Disease Control, Amiran Gamkrelidze, and asked Facebook to investigate, as a result of which the accounts were banned.

World Bank Regional Director for the South Caucasus Sebastian Molineus says the WB intends to release details this week as to how the institution’s financial aid will be used.

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