A new survey of public opinion in Georgia during the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed widespread support for the authorities’ response to the crisis.
When COVID-19 reached Georgia, there was initially some doubt as to how well the South Caucasus country could contain the lethal virus. The country registered its first case, a man who had returned from badly hit Iran, on February 26. Shortly afterwards, on March 11, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially declared a pandemic. Over subsequent weeks, the Georgian authorities imposed a curfew, locked down the country’s four largest cities, and instituted strict entry restrictions.
This strict response has since been widely praised for its effectiveness, as have the three doctors behind it. Georgia was the only former Soviet republic of 15 countries to which the EU opened its borders on July 1. According to the Georgian government’s official COVID-19 portal, StopCov.ge, the country has recorded 1,085 COVID-19 cases, including 16 deaths. Its neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan have fared much more poorly, with 36,162 and 28,980 cases respectively according to the Johns Hopkins University Map.
Tbilisi’s response appears to have won plaudits from ordinary Georgians, too. The new survey, published today, was conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centres (CRRC) with support from the Dutch Embassy in Tbilisi. Its findings are based on six periods of data collection between April 29 and June 6, at the height of Georgia’s epidemic. These featured interviews with over 6,200 people from all regions of the country under the government’s control.
Importantly, the survey indicates that the vast majority of the Georgian public approve of the measures implemented by the government during the crisis. Some of these, such as wearing masks in closed areas or enforcing night-time curfews, were supported by 94 and 83 percent of respondents respectively.
Despite their support for these measures, most respondents nevertheless favoured reopening the economy rather than waiting any longer for the crisis to abate before doing so. In a country where the average monthly salary is around US$300 and there is scant to no social welfare, it is perhaps not surprising that many Georgians appear to fear deeper poverty at least as much as the pandemic. The least supported policies, though supported by the majority, appeared to be those posing an immediate and direct economic loss — such as restricting sales of certain products online and increasing fines for violating emergency rules. An exception to this trend was the negative attitude towards reopening the country to international tourists, a prospect supported by only 37 percent of respondents.
The risk of impoverishment is palpable: the share of households reporting no income whatsoever increased from around one percent before the crisis to around 13 percent during it. Approximately half of the employed population lost a job, half of which eventually returned to work by early June. Meanwhile, consumer sentiment remains low and few Georgians suggest that they would return to shopping and socialising in bars and cafes even after the restrictions have been lifted — with potentially significant repercussions for the service sector and economic recovery.
The authors of the survey note that Georgian society appears to have “rallied around the flag” during the pandemic, expressing markedly positive views of the actions of public institutions and figures.
Heated debate erupted over the Georgian Orthodox Church, which was accused of defying the government’s social distancing measures when it continued to hold communal worship. Just four percent of Georgia’s Orthodox Christians stated that they attended the Easter liturgy this year, down from 44 percent the previous year. Only a third of respondents stated that they approved of the church continuing to serve communion wine from a shared spoon during the pandemic, a longstanding tradition which clerics strongly defended. While Georgians may have heeded the government’s advice over their priests’, these incidents did not have any statistically significant impact on public approval of the church, which remains one of the country’s most trusted institutions in this Orthodox Christian-majority country.