By Zviad Jordania
While the coronavirus pandemic and climate change are inherently different issues, they share two important characteristics: both are global crises that threaten the lives of millions of people. Yet only one crisis has inspired widespread, drastic action from countries across the globe.
As COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, spreads, governments, businesses and individuals around the world have undertaken unprecedented measures akin to wartime efforts.
Countries have been put into lockdown, schools closed, events canceled, factories shuttered, millions told to work from home and emergency funds released. No economic cost has been too big to stem the spread of the disease.
Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are the countries, that joined the EU-led Eastern Partnership Program. How do they deal with the COVID-19 challenge?
Armenia’s parliament on March 31, 2020 passed amendments giving the authorities very broad surveillance powers to use cellphone data for tracking coronavirus cases, Human Rights Watch said today. The amendments impose restrictions on the right to privacy and allow the authorities access to confidential medical information related to people exposed to the virus. On March 16, 2020, Armenia declared a state of emergency, allowing the government to take steps to minimize risk of infection during the outbreak of COVID-19. This State of Emergency was extended until May 14, 2020. Actions include closure of schools and universities, prohibition of events with more than 20 persons in attendance, restrictions on movement within the country, screening and quarantine measures, and restriction of entry into Armenia. As of May 7, 2020, Armenia has 2,884 confirmed cases of Covid-19 within its borders with 1,185 confirmed recoveries and 42 confirmed deaths. Transportation options from Armenia by air and land remain extremely limited.
“The Armenian government is facing a public health emergency, and technology has an important role to play in communicating public health messages and promoting access to health care,” said Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “But at the same time, the authorities need to address the ways that using mass surveillance undermines rights.”
As of May 4, the Government of Armenia lifted many of the restrictions on businesses and movement initially introduced on March 24, 2020. While some measures, including restrictions on public transport, will remain in place through May 14, most of the restrictions on businesses and the movement of individuals, including the requirement to carry a passport and government form, are lifted.
On April 18, the authorities of Azerbaijan, an energy-rich nation in the South Caucasus, announced that borders with Georgia and Iran will remain closed until May 4. Later it announced coronavirus restrictions by two weeks until May 4. To date, the country recorded to date a total of 2,127 COVID-19 cases, with 28 deaths. Authorities said 1536 patients had recovered. The number of infected and died per 1 million population is relatively low.
What stands behind these low numbers, which many call “success story”? The reasons are analyzed in the article authored by the Vice-President of OANA, head of the state-owned AZERTAG news agency, Aslan Aslanov, who has most adequately reflected the processes taken place in the country and steps taken by the authorities. Among the factors which need to be specifically emphasized is the rapid reaction by the government. Indeed, the difference between the number of infected and died in Armenia and Azerbaijan, two adversary countries, reach as high as five (per 1 million population).
The COVID-19 pandemic was confirmed to have spread to Belarus, when the first case of COVID-19 in the country was registered in Minsk on 28 February 2020. President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, dismissed the threat of coronavirus and encouraged working in fields and driving tractors as a way of overcoming the pandemic: “You just have to work, especially now, in a village […] there, the tractor will heal everyone. The fields heal everyone”. In his further comments on the pandemic, the Belarusian leader referred to it as “psychosis” and, on 28 March, played a game of hockey, later stating in an interview “it is better to die on our feet, than live on your knees […] sport, especially on ice, is better than any antiviral medication, it is the real thing”. Prior to that, in an official meeting, Lukashenko proposed “poisoning” the coronavirus with vodka, as well as attending banyas as the best cures for the disease.
On 3 May, during the official meeting chaired by Alexander Lukashenko, he said cancellation of the 9 May Victory Day Parade was impossible: “I have to say, we can not cancel the parade. Just can not. I’ve thought about it for a long time. This, of course, is an emotional, deeply ideological thing. We must understand, those people died, perhaps, from viruses and other diseases. But they didn’t feel it sometimes and didn’t think about it. And they died for us, as pathetic as it may sound. Think about what people would say, perhaps, after a day or two, that we were afraid”. According to Lukashenko, however, there was no need in forcing people to participate: “If people don’t want it, are afraid and care about their health, we will understand that. We have enough volunteers today – thousands and thousands of people want this event to happen”. In his further commentary, Alexander Lukashenko expressed scepticism towards the potential epidemiological danger of the parade and invited Russian officials to take part in it, emphasizing the openness of Belarus to its Russian “friends and brothers”. It was also noted by Lukashenko that, despite the absence of nation-wide restrictions, Belarusians had shown care for their health during the past May holidays: “People kind of spread-out. There were no gatherings”.
Today, Georgia’s case count is at 615, with 275 recoveries, and nine deaths, according to the government’s dedicated stopcov.ge website. A website I find myself checking almost daily. In their continued effort to stop the spread of the virus, the Government of Georgian announced today the country’s likely extension of the state of emergency through May 22. Additionally, declaring that they expect to see a spike in case numbers in the next two to three weeks. The capacity for treatment at medical facilities is said to be 1,600 cases.
The country first announced its state of emergency precisely one month ago, on March 21, taking almost every precaution necessary in hopes of containing the spread of the virus, which the country’s proactive measures have certainly helped do.
Before the official state of emergency was announced, schools had already been closed, restaurants and public spaces shut down, large gatherings banned.
With the state of emergency in place, public transportation has wholly stopped, traffic movement between cities limited, and only essential businesses are allowed to remain open. A 9:00 pm curfew has been put in place in Tbilisi.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia reports daily on their Twitter account the number of fines they impose on citizens who do not obey the state of emergency regulations. Today it was 182; 78 fines for disobeying the curfew, 66 fines for not adhering to gathering in groups of three or less and maintaining the six-feet social distancing rule, and 38 fines for violating rules of transporting passengers and movement by car, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs website. At 3,000 GEL, or roughly $952, this is by no means a cheap fine.
Additional precautions have included street washings, disinfecting public spaces, and a traffic ban over this past Orthodox Easter weekend, which has been extended through April 27.
The government’s dedicated stopcov.ge website is a great resource for locals and there’s a government hotline (residents can dial 144) and Ministry of Health hotline (1505) for anyone who fears they’ve been exposed to and contracted COVID-19.
According to the stopcov.ge website, free testing and treatment are provided by the government for all citizens.
The Parliament of the Republic of Moldova declared state of emergency throughout the country for 17 March – 15 May 2020. In order to diminish constrains posed by the coronavirus in Moldova, the Central Election Commission of the Republic of Moldova (CEC) in cooperation with the Council of Europe representatives in Chisinau tries to put to most efficient use the electronical means of communication in order to get across the objectives from the Work plan for 2020.
To exemplify, representatives of the CEC, the Central Election Commission of the Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (ATU Gagauzia), local staff of the Council of Europe and local consultants teleconferenced on 26 March 2020 the state of pre-feasibility study mapping obstacles and legal, technical and economic conditions for the informational automation of the electoral processes in ATU Gagauzia. So far, electoral processes in the ATU Gagauzia are part of the State Automation Informational System “Elections” (SAIS “Elections”), run by the CEC as a unique electronic tool of managing all electoral processes, including collection, centralisation and electronic processing of electoral data during all electoral cycles throughout the country. The issue is that the SAIS “Elections” does not serve for elections and referenda organised by the Gagauz authorities only in ATU Gagauzia. As a result, the consultants presented the Road map of the study and further steps.
Another online meeting of staff members of the Council of Europe with representatives of the CEC and the Center for Continuous Electoral Training took place on 2 April. The aim was to discuss the state of the development of the Communication strategy in line with the CEC Strategic Plan for 2020-2023. It is worth mentioning, that the Strategic plan was developed with the expert assistance of the Council of Europe based on the CoE URSO (Useful, Relevant, Sustainable and Owned) toolkit for electoral cooperation and strategic planning prepared by the Division for Elections and Civil Society in cooperation with Institute of International Sociology of Gorizia, Italy. The CoE Project “Improving electoral practice in the Republic of Moldova” adjusted its quarterly Work Plan so that the on-going activities are affected as less as possible. To this end, desk interviewers, tele-conferences, studies are being used with maximum efficiency.
And finally, Ukraine. The number of officially confirmed COVID-19 cases here has reached 13,691 as of 9 a.m. on May 7, according to Ukraine’s health ministry. In total, 340 people have died from the disease in Ukraine and 2,396 patients have recovered. In the past 24 hours, Ukraine has identified 507 new COVID-19 cases. Out of all COVID-19 patients in Ukraine, 855 are children and 2,387 are medical workers. In the past 24 hours, Ukraine’s health ministry has carried out 4,763 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, the most accurate way of diagnosing COVID-19.
As of May 4, the largest number of coronavirus cases in Ukraine has been registered in Kyiv and Kyiv Oblast (2,388 cases), Chernivtsi Oblast (1,887 cases), Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast (984 cases), Ternopil Oblast (896 cases), Rivne Oblast (750 cases), Zakarpattia Oblast (531 cases), and Lviv Oblast (506 cases).
During an online briefing on May 4, Ukrainian Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said that, starting May 5, hospitals can carry out elective surgeries in cases of urgent necessity. Before the operation, patients and medical workers will be tested for COVID-19 with PCR tests to avoid the risk of the infection, the minister said. On May 1, Stepanov said the authorities would ease quarantine restrictions starting May 11, a plan which will be discussed on May 6 at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers.
Globally, COVID-19 has infected 3,836,177 people. In total, 265,356 people have died as of this morning. 1,307,594 patients have recovered.