More than three days have passed since Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia placed Marneuli and Bolnisi Municipalities under lockdown to prevent further spread of coronavirus. On March 23, the government shut down two municipalities on the grounds that Georgian healthcare authorities could not track the source of infection of the COVID-19 case confirmed in Marneuli.
What is happening in the quarantine zone and how do locals cope with the challenges that have emerged amid the new reality? Civil.ge reached out to Kamila Mamedova, founder and director of Marneuli Community Radio, for the interview.
Civil.ge: First of all, tell us what has changed after Marneuli and Bolnisi were placed under lockdown? What can you say about the current situation in Marneuli Municipality?
Kamila Mamedova: Today is the fourth day of quarantine and first of all, what has changed is the feeling that we no more have the right to move freely. We feel constant fear, even when we are going to grocery stores. Despite observing all the rules, you are prompted to think that you just got infected as you left home and using thermometer becomes a habit. In that regard, this is what has altered.
On the other hand, the situation has settled down, because, unlike other regions, Marneuli is a lively town with vibrant small business, outdoor markets, which also connects other regions with each other through intensive trade, in addition to agriculture. Now, it can be said that the entire cycle has been ground to a halt. Little time has passed yet to grasp the total damage caused by lockdown in the municipality. Bayram, or the New Year [New Year festival celebrated by the Azeri community – Civil.ge’s note], has started recently. It seems just like the New Year holidays. Hence, locals cannot realize that these holidays may last for a longer time. I think we will get worried over how to make ends meet under quarantine later. Civic activists understand the circumstances, but people still take it lightly.
Locals from Marneuli brought farm products to the capital for sale which was their only source of subsistence. What has changed with this regard?
We are finding out about this issue now. As far as I know, Municipality City Hall [local government] plans to assume charge of transporting farm products to Tbilisi so that locals maintain their sources of income. They [local government] are making efforts to outline certain plans in this direction, but these plans have not yet been put in place.
What can you tell us about general public attitudes towards the current situation?
I think that public attitude is quite appropriate. People took it [lockdown measures] very seriously from the very first day. So, there was no need to use water cannons for dispersing them, as they simply stayed home and observed all recommendations.
About two weeks ago, people were advised to stay home, not to move too much and avoid crowded places, but locals did not pay much heed to it. Now that was detrimental. We simply lacked a perception that it [public health emergency] concerned us as well. But, when mandatory quarantine was declared in our region, we took it more seriously and realized what was happening.
You noted that recommendations for the locals had been issued much earlier; How can you describe public awareness in this respect? How actively and sufficiently were locals informed about the virus? Do you think that more efforts were needed in this direction? Has anything changed with this regard nowadays? Did the government take additional measures to raise the awareness of local people?
I disagree with the opinion that there was a yawning gap in terms of awareness. We are facing a pandemic and it is the top issue discussed by all media outlets worldwide. It would be wrong to assume that the information vacuum was caused by the fact that a great majority of locals do not speak the official language [Georgian]. TVs and media outlets which function in languages intelligible to locals also covered the virus outbreak. It needs to be stressed that we failed to grasp the actual proximity of the outbreak.
We have been watching at what was happening in Turkey, Italy, but could not grasp what was happening in Georgia, and, most likely, this is where the [sense of] alienation stemmed from.
Of course, we were putting efforts [into covering the outbreak], but a four-member editorial board cannot bear responsibility for everything. It was quite overdue when the information campaign had been launched, and it was ramped up only after transportation was halted. Only then did the locals find out that it was a real thing and concerned all of us, as [public] transport is the only means for rural residents to reach the center.
As for the information campaign, we have a very engaged Mayor and I think that just owing to his reputation, a lot of good has happened. For instance, if it were not for his personal reputation and friendly relations with business, I think that tea-houses, most frequented places by local men, would not close their doors. It happened [just] upon his personal request. His personal initiatives were effective, but they could not have been large-scale, because we do not know, whether the same [rule] had been applied to villages.
Then, the Administration of the State Representative [Office of the Governor of Kvemo Kartli region] started to print leaflets in Azerbaijani and Armenian languages, which were distributed to he population shortly before the quarantine was declared. These steps were positive but belated in terms of raising awareness among locals.
Now, cars equipped with loudspeakers are driving around the villages to inform the local population in Georgian and Azerbaijani languages. Moreover, leaflets are distributed and if I am not mistaken, this is done with the help of the Red Cross. Now, as we are in the spotlight, interest towards more information has grown. Moreover, as local providers claim, the use of Internet has also increased. It is obvious that they have also become part of the process and this, more or less, increases people’s awareness and sense of responsibility.
As for foodstuffs and other essential items, does Marneuli Municipality face any shortage, is the region well-supplied?
It is too early to talk about any shortages, because we have lots of large grocery stores, which have put more products for sale on the stalls than usual. I visit crossing points every day and, as far as I know, that they [border guard] allow freight trucks to cross [the border], which supply stores.
As for the villages, they will probably face some shortage, but local City Hall promises to supply those rural groceries, which are suffering from food shortages. Overall, the villages will not face any problems. However, I reckon that by the end of the next week we will have a more clear picture.
Are sanitizers and face masks available to locals?
As soon as the first case of infection has been confirmed in Georgia, deficit became visible. Inventories were said to be replenished several days ago. But, as far as I know, it was only enough for two days. It seems that we will soon face the same problem and stocks of respiratory masks may be replenished. But the fact is that demand for these products [personal protective equipment] remains extremely high.
Has the government launched testing of locals for COVID-19 and how thoroughly has it been carried out?
Yesterday was a very busy day in this regard. Health authorities arrived in villages in due course . However, I want to reiterate that we face the problem of low awareness. Apparently, they were short on wireless body thermometers and took population’s temperature with usual thermometers. Some villagers got the impression that they were not tested thoroughly. Therefore, it is important to provide detailed information to the population in order to avoid complaints or the spread of disinformation.
As for the rapid test kits, have they been put to use yet?
1,000 rapid tests have been brought today and will be used shortly. By the way, it is a tricky issue, because since Marneuli is a quarantine zone, people think that all of them will be tested. Since the number of tests is limited, people who show no symptoms will not be tested; the fact that locals are not properly informed is a problem.
You are a journalist representing a local media outlet – has your working process been affected amid quarantine and has your access to information been restricted?
We, the journalists, have started to work remotely long before the quarantine was imposed and have modified our work schedule earlier. Our job is compounded by a sense of anxiety as going outside to obtain information has become associated with a threat. It has long been a rule that local government favors central media and allocates most resources ito them. But as now it is in common interest to bring necessary information to locals, they are cooperating with us in a coordinated manner and we have not encountered problems in this respect so far.
We know that the police are patrolling the territory and troops have been dispatched. How do they treat locals and vice versa?
Troops have been deployed only at checkpoints; they are not patrolling in the city and their movement remains almost unnoticed. As for police officers, I cannot say that their presence is excessive. But since I go out for a limited period of time during a day, I cannot assess the situation. But still, I could tell that their number has not increased much. I know that they are intensively patrolling on the street where the infected woman used to live to ensure that nobody gets out.
As for the public attitude towards them, there is one category of people, who think the whole thing about the virus is a hoax, but still they follow the recommendations and stay home.
And last question, what is the key challenge for the local population today and what should the government focus on?
In my opinion, the government should choose appropriate means to communicate with the population and use more gentle forms [of communication].