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Democracy First Responders: Georgia, Akaki Zoidze

COVID-19 threatens not only lives and livelihoods, but also governments and democratic institutions. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is profiling our partners and other leaders who have been the “first responders” in our global fight to protect and strengthen democracy.

In this new series, #DemocracyFirstResponders, we spoke with an anti-corruption activist in Nepal, a journalist in Zimbabwe, a former government official in Georgia and others to discuss their efforts to prevent democratic backsliding in the time of COVID-19.

For the fourth episode of this series, our host Bakhtiyor Nishanov spoke with Dr. Akaki Zoidze, former Deputy Minister of Health and chair of the committee on healthcare in Georgia’s parliament. Zoidze has spent years working with the government on public health issues and continues to serve as a critical voice in the country’s democratic management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can listen to this conversation and others by subscribing to the Global Podcast on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Bakhtiyor: Akaki, welcome to our podcast. Thank you so much for taking the time during these very trying and difficult times to be with us today. What do you think made the Georgian government identify COVID as a threat when so many other countries did not know what to do or were basically, I don't want to say it, but they were sitting on their hands. And what do you think sort of helped them make this decision, this really hard decision, early on?

Akaki: I think that so far, again so far is a key word here, because we are now entering the phase which unfortunately [the] United States and many European countries are in right now, and we are basically witnessing these reports from the battlefield, I would call them, because otherwise no other words will better describe the situation. The grave situation that is in terms of, in several places [such as the] United States, I will not be naming places and names, but everyone knows about that and the death count that increases every minute and every hour [globally]. And I think Georgia’s still in the phase where we have a relative calmness, but this calm may be the calm before the storm. So that's what we are trying to avoid — the storm that will devastate our health system and society in general. I think we have gained some time, and [the] key success so far is that we have been able to gain some time, to win some time, to prepare and to flatten the curve.

I mean everyone knows what this means. I will not explain what flatten the curve means, and I think we are in [a] good position to do so if we continue relying on the opinions of professionals. That has been the key to what happened in Georgia in January when the first warnings from public health specialists [were] sent to the government. [They said] that this [was] happening in China, that pandemic preparedness should be underway and that it [was] most likely [going] to hit our country as well. [Georgia] is a tourist destination and [part] of the share of the GDP from tourism is growing each year and we had 9 million visitors, which is about three times more than the country's indigenous population. [Considering] these tourist flows and that we're [at a] crossroads between Europe and Asia, where this whole thing started, [we were] most likely to undertake a hit several weeks before the same restrictions were adopted in Europe or in United States. So we didn't leave. We closed borders earlier. We closed the flights [even] before the WHO was advising not to completely shut down the airports but basically to withstand from nonessential travel.

That was the advice we took, these actions. And in this case, public health professionals, the government and the prime minister and the government task force, [they] had [an] attentive ear towards the public and professionals. [There] was no choice between the economy and the public health because our understanding was that it would be a choice between two bad decisions. [But], in this case, the second decision is worse because it affects both the economy and the public health.

I think the most important issue is that so far the success cases have been associated — and there is propaganda which I already see associated with some authoritarian[s], that it is easier for authoritarian regimes to mobilize and to respond to pandemics than for democratic regimes, and these examples of Europe and United States are given as an example. Ok, Georgia is democratic country and in [a] democratic country, you can mobilize on time you just need to listen to the right people. So the right person. That's it.

And then, even in democratic countries, not even, but in democratic countries, it is more reliable that we are not hiding our figures and we know that whatever we're reporting [is] how the situation is. And we are transparent. And in this case, I think Georgia is a good example that democratic countries, with democratically elected and accountable governments that [don’t] hide information from their own public, can take decisive actions. It can take, in times of major challenges, global challenges and specifically in national challenges. So this is, I think in that sense, it's a good example that I would say and I would stress for Georgia because the other... China, yeah they managed to isolate 150 million people and yes, it's now considered a success but I mean we are not sure whether China is reporting now their current figures. If they are doing this, this [is a] crime against humanity, I would say, at least against public health, that they're hiding a figure just to sell a success story.

I don't believe in that. I don't believe in conspiracy theories in general, I don't believe in that. But if they do so, and even these nagging suspicions that we all have in the West, in Georgia, that China may be hiding something because they had been, their amnesia, as [a] medical term, their prior history shows that they have been not very forthcoming and transparent in certain cases, right? To put it mildly. Even if they are doing that just to sell the story that they had been successful unlike Western democracies in curtailing the pandemic, then even that might be a major problem.

Bakhtiyor: It seems like people came together. This is one of those challenges, one of those moments that sort of brought everyone together. Do you think that experience in the past that brought Georgians together, do you think that [this plays] a role in response to COVID?

Akaki: First of all for the health system, because [the] health system has both [an] institutional memory and individuals that remember [the] 9th of April, [the] 90s, [the] beginning of the 90s, [the] Civil War, [the] war with Russia and [the] occupied territories — not [the] 2008 war, but the 90s, the war that took a major toll [on] the country. And then we had emergencies, recurring emergencies of several nature[s] and the occupied territories, alertness in that sense, continued alertness in that sense. And no, [not the] 2008 Russian War, which has been a major reminder for us [of] what region we are living in [and] who our neighbor [is] in general. All this of course contributed to the alertness of the system. All this contributed to the fact that the prime minister listened. The war might be coming, and we need to listen to the professionals when the pandemic hits us.

And the health system itself and epidemiologists and others have been prepared and even the doctors know how to act in these circumstances. [On] the other hand as well, one additional advantage [is] that [the] universal healthcare program initiated [just] four years ago [and] attracted three times more investment in healthcare. That was another factor. And right now, we are more prepared [than ever before in the history of Georgia], because we have now per capita, more ventilators, more ICU beds and more hospital beds than anybody else in Europe or [the] United States. So we had, for example, 2,000 ventilators for 3.5 million people, while the whole [of] Italy has 20,000 ventilators with [a] 60 million population. So that has been because we [increased] the health budget three times. As a chairperson on the healthcare committee, I was calling for improved efficiency.

Look at the worst. Look at the NHS in [the] UK who could be... [the] United States systems, their occupancy rates are above 90 percent. Their efficiency is so great, and we have 50% of the occupancy rate, so it's bad. But in the time of pandemic, extra resources. So it wasn't [the] "waste of resources" that it was named [due to] inefficiencies in the system and [according to] some more libertarian opinions about the role of the state in providing universal healthcare and so on. So I think that has been a major plus. Another issue I think is that we also have the Lugar center. And this is a major, major contribution. And now my heartfelt appreciation [goes] to the [American] people for that major gift, that the digital program that has been active for years.

It's not just [the] Lugar Center, it's the whole surveillance and laboratory network. The people that have been trained... The treasure is the people, not the infrastructure, not the stones and the equipment. Yes, these are important, but the major, the major value is attached to people, to train[ing] people, knowledgeable people. The national Center for Disease Control has been on the forefront of this battle and it’s [their] professional advice to the government [that] has basically allowed us to achieve what we have achieved so far. [We] also have been the recipient of major help from the American people. So for us, this is major issue.

Bakhtiyor: Let me ask you this, just because you had mentioned the Lugar Center. I've seen some pieces in Russian media about [the] Lugar Center and disinformation connected with it that said how Georgia was so early on because it's… clearly, there's a lot of disinformation when it comes to COVID, both from state actors but also non-state actors. You know, Russia being one of them. Are you seeing any sort of disinformation campaigns on COVID in Georgia and [is] Georgia receptive to this kind of stuff? It seems not, but I would really appreciate your insight on that.

Akaki: I mean we have been fending off the Russian propaganda attacks for years regarding [the] Lugar Center because they'd say [things] like, [it’s a] buy weapons center and there were several falsified, fake information constructed about how we genetically engineer the new viruses here or the new insects that spread these viruses and this kind of stuff. And it was getting some traction. I mean now not a lot, but it was getting some traction within the country as well, especially when these kinds of rumors were propagated by U.S. journalists by the way. [They] posed as a former advisor to the former prime minister of Georgia, Giovannia. I will not name the name, but this was a U.S. journalist who was a very desirable respondent to many of the Georgian journalists and [much] of the Georgian press.

Not very serious press, but still press and media [talk] about these conspiracy theories, that the Lugar center poses a major threat to the population. And even that has resulted in some protests from the people in the neighborhood of the Lugar Center and [the] national Center of Disease Control. This propaganda machine was working constantly and continuously. Every time for the last, I don't know, six or seven years, there has been a new rumor, new fake information about the bioweapons center that [the] U.S. is operating in Georgia. And now I think everybody knows what the Lugar Center is about, that it is on the forefront and a major defense against the pandemic. And every single Georgian now knows that the Lugar Center is only there to protect them.

Even the most desperate things have some good sides, terrible things. [The] pandemic is a terrible thing. But from that perspective, at least it has helped us to dismantle this machine against [the] Lugar Center, propaganda. And then other propaganda machine, which is another fake thing, which is now jointly promoted by Russia and China. Again, it's related to the issue that strong presidents and strong rule are better in this time of global challenge. You need to rely on the strong leaders, on Stalin-like personalities and this kind of stuff. And they will take you out of the woods, not democracy and these stupid parliaments and arguing and people who are basically hostages to their multinational corporation, masons, or name it. Name many other possibilities. Or I don't know. I don't know. I won't repeat.

Bakhtiyor: In terms of [what] Georgia's doing, you did talk about lives and livelihoods but obviously this has taken a kind of a social and financial and emotional impact on all of Georgians, right? On the country, on the region. What do you think the consequences of this pandemic are going to be in terms of economy but also just emotional wellbeing? And are there any plans, if you may talk about this, that the task force is discussing to sort of counter that, once Georgia comes out of quarantine?

Akaki: I know for us this is [a] very, very important issue, a very important question, for every country needs [a] plan for survival, and [the] post-pandemic period is not far away. I really am, as I told you, I'm optimistic. And by nature I'm an optimist. So I hope that at least this first, most devastating wave, the whole world, and now my country will be able to withstand, and in one and two months’ time we'll talk about releasing some of the measures, and in three months’ time we'll be talking about kind of curtailing and taking control of the situation completely and resuming the normal way of life eventually step by step. Because again, we need to control and monitor [the] planning part of the epidemic situation, epidemiology, and make sure that [we didn't] create favorable conditions for re-emergence and the repeated surge of the virus because it's all mathematics and it's all epidemiology and it is known how these things happen.

Still, [there are] many unknowns about the virus, which basically is one of the reasons why so far we [have not] had not the perfect response globally. Let's call it so. Because of these many unknowns, because some countries [did not take] the threat as seriously as deserved and made the choice seemingly in favor of [the] economy rather [than] public health. But now what we are witnessing is that the choice ended up to be detrimental both for economy and for the public health. The worst decision in this case. For us, the important issue will be that definitely we'll need a major change [to] business as usual. Of course there will be no more business as usual. We need to revise the budget to have an emergency budget. We will be asking and relying and expecting. We'll be very grateful for any external assistance because Georgia and [small] countries with smaller economies like Georgia wouldn't be able to withstand these devastating economic losses that are expected.

Even in the best-case scenario, we have a negative. We have at least zero [percent] growth [with] the worst case and not, and we'll have about 6 to 7 percent reduction in [the] GDP for this year, 2020, and maybe some growth in 2021 [even if] the second or third wave [does] not occur sometime in 2021. I mean, which is, we don't know yet. I hope it will not be there. But, for example, the so-called swine flu pandemic was developing during three years, 2009, 2011 so it wasn't as devastating or with the same similar effects as it was. But still it took 100,000 lives and also had been a major disruption in travel and economy. [This] has not been a subject of reason for the drastic measures [countries] are taking now for this specific pandemic because this pandemic spreads faster and it exerts higher pressure on the health systems.

So that's why this differs from the swine flu pandemic. So, I think that we eventually will reemerge. But also again, I am not tired [of finding] some positive things. Even [in] that great perspective, which is basically [that] because we have been swift, we have a chance to have less losses both in terms of the human capital and in terms of the economy, than other countries in the region, then we might be better positioned for the recovery of the economy, better positioned to receive tourists because the country has been a success story. And investors. And use this advantage in favor of Georgia. So again, in everything, I am trying to find some positive as well. But definitely it's not a positive situation, of course.

Bakhtiyor: Thank you so much, Akaki. I really, really appreciate it.

Akaki: Thank you and I wish everybody success and health in this difficult time. This will pass, but we humankind will triumph over this pandemic as we triumphed over many other challenges in the past.