By Hana LaRock
When we look at countries around the globe who have been successful at flattening the curve and decreasing coronavirus cases, we hear about South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, and Iceland. But, one country that has not made headlines as much as her coronavirus-fighting counterparts is Georgia.
Why is this?
Well, for starters, there are still people out there who don’t realize that Georgia is a country, and not just the name of a U.S. state. We’ve heard it before—it’s no doubt getting old, but it’s still very much true. There’s no question that Georgia is still rather small and mysterious to outsiders.
Yet, people are flocking to Georgian restaurants to taste khachapuri and chacha and may have seen some photos depicting the beautiful landscapes, monasteries, and fairy-tale-like charm, which have inspired adventurous travelers to pay a visit.
✱ Steep hills of the Old Town by Carolyn M. Walker.
In fact, in recent years, Georgia’s numbers of international visitors have greatly increased. In 2019, there were 9 million international visitors, and the country plans to have a whopping 11 million by 2025. But, these travelers will realize that there are still not many direct flights from major cities into Tbilisi (only 28 countries currently have them).
After all, who doesn’t want to visit a country where the immigration officials give you a mini bottle of wine immediately after stamping your passport?
And, Russian nationals—who have consistently made up one of the largest groups of international visitors into Georgia—are not able to fly directly into Tbilisi for the moment, despite the routes previously existing. This is due to a flight ban by the Kremlin following anti-Russian protests in Georgia’s capital, which was triggered by the appearance of a Russian lawmaker. That being said, most Russian travelers will find a way.
All this considered, there is still very little the world knows about Georgia. And, in a time when a halt in international travel has no doubt been taking its toll on a country who was at the start of a tourism boom, Georgia has still found other ways to get noticed (albeit, not as much as we would like). To date, Georgia has had less than 700 coronavirus cases, and only 12 deaths, according to the live COVID-19 statistics on Google. In a country of nearly 4 million people, that’s rather impressive (though may still be a bit preemptive).
So, what has Georgia done, and what can we learn from this tiny country in the Caucasus; a country that despite its size, complicated history, political struggles, and GDP, has found a way to manage a virus better than some of the world’s richest and most powerful nations?
✱ Cats Rule by Hana LaRock
First and foremost, Georgia and her citizens have taken the quarantine and shelter-in-place orders very seriously. Georgian officials are not messing around, and have been dishing out 3,000 GEL fines (the equivalent of nearly $1,000 USD in a country where the average monthly salary is less than $400 USD) to those who have broken these orders, says Agenda.GE.
Soso Pataraia, whose family owns Marani Griboedovze, a wine cellar, and store in Tbilisi, was placed in quarantine in Western Georgia upon his return from a business trip to Italy back in March. In a time where certain Americans couldn’t dream of having to do this, Soso said was completely on board. “Our government did an excellent job and our healthcare workers have worked around the clock with selflessness. But, most importantly, people have understood the warnings and rules and have been social distancing.”
He continued, “Personally, having traveled to risky cities around Italy [as the situation quickly worsened there], I can see how Georgia learned what not to do. Like Italians, we love to be social as well, but I think we realized the results of this in Italy, which made us fearful—in a good way.” Pataraia’s family store is currently re-opened, but with restrictions in place.
While the average American would likely have a hard time handling two weeks in quarantine, Georgians have collectively encountered a lot of hard times: Starvation. Russia. Poverty. Russia. War. Russia.
You get it.
✱ Tbilisi cafe and restaurant scene is as eclectic and diverse as the city itself. By Max Cordova.
For lack of a better phrase, Georgians are used to crises. And, when they have the ability to be in control of the situation, you bet your sweet churchkhela they’re going to take matters into their own hands and fight this virus as best as they can, even if it means willingly accepting a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a facility.
Of course, like any country, there are those that will ignore the rules, or at least find a way around them. The Orthodox Church, for example, faced criticism and backlash for pushing gatherings despite government orders. A compromise with the church and the prime minister allowed for such gatherings (specifically for Easter), but with supervision and social distancing rules in place. In a highly religious country, this led many to believe that faith was what kept the virus at bay, despite the fact that several churchgoers discovered shortly after they were not immune. C’est La Vie.
Anyhow, their success in handling the virus is just a glimpse into what Georgia is capable of and what we can expect to see from this country going forward. Georgia is remarkable; it has one of the oldest histories to date. Even their language is unlike any other. The country sits at the crossroads of Asia and Europe (depending on who you ask), and has thus always been diverse and welcoming. Just walking down a street in Tbilisi, you can see mosques, orthodox churches, and synagogues. Unlike other countries who have lived under Soviet rule, Georgia has embraced this as just another part of their history, finding ways to incorporate it along with the old, new, East, and West. (A hotel and cafe, Fabrika, has done a wonderful job of demonstrating this.)
Like most countries around the globe, Georgia’s borders are closed to foreign visitors until July 1st. But, in general, the country has always been very open. Georgia’s lax rules with foreigners (outside of a global pandemic)—for instance, their one-year visa program for many ex-pats and tax incentives for businesses and developers—has put Georgia in the unique position to continue to be a success story and hopefully, continue to appear in headlines, virus notwithstanding.
Maybe Georgia has had a hard time getting noticed before, but it’s certainly being noticed now. And, we are definitely keeping an eye out for what’s to come.
Cover photo by Tati S. Titch.