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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Coronavirus continues to ravage the globe with more than 2.6 million confirmed cases worldwide and closing in on 200,000 deaths. Some locations have suffered far worse than others. Italy has seen 25,000 deaths. Spain has suffered 22,000 deaths, France has 21,000 and the United States, with the world’s third largest population, has lost 46,000 and counting.

What seems to have escaped world media attention however is that the fight against COVID-19 has success stories as well, perhaps none more impressive than the country of Georgia. Sandwiched in between Russia and Turkey, Georgia has a population of 3.75 million people.


At the time this column was submitted for publishing, Georgia had only five deaths from coronavirus. You read that correctly. Five.

How is this possible? What explains Georgia’s tremendous success in this battle for the good health of its people? Georgia’s Vice Prime Minister Maya Tskitishvili sat down with me recently and explained. Ms. Tskitishvili is a Georgian economist and in addition to being the current vice prime minister she also serves as the minister of Regional Development and Infrastructure.

When asked what has made things different in her country than so many places around the globe Ms. Tskitishvili said there were multiple things. “We have addressed this challenge by taking it seriously from the very beginning. First, it was very early when we made decisions, second was our careful listening to our health care professionals.” When communicating with the public, “We were quite attentive and very clear and consistent in the corona locations.” She says the most important pieces may be “the things we were doing all together - the whole population of Georgia.” The vice prime minister points out the officials in charge of the government response were very responsive and Georgia’s people listened. “We have very responsible citizens and with that mutual accord we managed to really stand ready to cope with the virus.”

The Georgian people may be better prepared to deal with an unexpected challenge and to listen to their government than the populations of many countries. The last two generations of Georgians have faced multiple conflicts and difficulties, both internally and from outside forces.

In the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union had been dissolved, Georgia was a newly independent nation. Not long after their first leader was elected, civil war broke out. The fallout impacted the entire nation. In 2008, five days of war exploded between Georgia and Russia. To say the people of Georgia are responsive and resilient to the unexpected would be an understatement. Ms. Tskitishvili summarizes, “Georgia has been through difficult times so the need to live and adapt in difficult times, of course, makes us more united, makes us stronger.”

Ms. Tskitishvili gives some of the credit for Georgia’s successful battle against coronavirus to the United States. The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency has worked hand in hand with Georgia on preparedness training for radiological, nuclear, biological and other threats. She says that training has played a role in Georgia’s reaction. “We’ve been feeling help and support from the US for many years, almost 30 years. The training the US Defense Threat Agency provided helped us to be more prepared for the coronavirus. The people they trained are health care professionals. They are very well trained and respected. The Lugar Center, through our national center for disease control, was trained by the US. (They) were the national frontrunners in the battle against the coronavirus”

The Lugar Center to which she refers is the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research. It is home to the Georgian National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC) and the U.S. Army Medical Research Directorate-Georgia (USAMRD-G), an overseas infectious disease laboratory of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR). Though the U.S. government-funded the construction of the Lugar Center with $150 million (overseen by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency), the facility is owned and operated by the Georgian government.

The vice prime minister is clearly proud of her national team. “Thanks to the efforts of our National Healthcare Center we were better prepared. Our state institutions were able to be very careful with their response. We were able to be preventive and make all the responses up to date which led to the type of success we’re having.”

Georgia may have enjoyed more success on the health front than many nations, but they are still taking a cautious approach to reopening their economy. Ms. Tskitishvili talks of two priorities. “Our primary goal is to care about the health of our people, but also the health of our economy is equally important. In all the countries of the world, we’re trying to find a balance between these two priority interests.”

Similar to in the U.S., the Georgian government announced an early economic stimulus package that included:

* Hundreds of millions of dollars in direct aid to businesses;

* Deferring payment of property taxes and income taxes for several month

* Providing VAT refunds to businesses to help with cash flow

* Emergency funds flowing into hospitals and the health care system

* Working with international partners, including the U.S., EU and World Bank, which have provided emergency funding to help Georgian during this crisis.

As for an official reopening Tskitishvili says caution is the watch word, “Based on the health care data, we will assess the situation in our country. We would prefer not to rush ourselves, but to be careful. We need to be ready to emerge as soon as the spread of the virus becomes more controlled and the risks are lower.”

The nation of Georgia is one of the most beautiful places on earth and relies heavily on tourism as an essential part of its economy. Its cautious and successful approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic may make them even more attractive in the coming months as people all over the world decide where and when they may feel safe traveling. The option of traveling to a stunning location combined with the fact coronavirus barely reared its ugly head there may put Georgia at the top of leisure travel destinations for the immediate future.

The vice prime minister welcomes that possibility, but remains focused on keeping the health and well being of her people on the same successful track. “We look forward to seeing visitors when the time is right.”


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