NGOs: Lockdown of Georgian Town Marneuli Sparks Xenophobia

Georgian non-governmental organizations say that a wave of xenophobia has followed the lockdown of Georgia’s southern town of Marneuli due to an outbreak coronavirus there.

Marneuli, which is mostly populated by Georgian Azerbaijanis, is a small town in the Kvemo Kartli region that borders neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia. A lockdown was announced in the municipality on March 23, after an internal transmission of COVID-19 was reported. Epidemiologists have not yet identified the source of the 62-year-old woman's infection.

After the quarantine was put into place, a number of discriminatory and xenophobic posts appeared on social media, seeing some Georgians blaming Marneuli locals for negligence and spreading the virus throughout the country.

Georgian NGO platform ‘No to Phobia’ expressed concerned about the wave of xenophobia that followed the events in Marneuli. Representatives of the platform said in a statement that hate speech and incitement to discrimination against the ethnic Azeri population has been growing in society, especially on social media.

‘No to Phobia’ called on the media, politicians and public figures to maximally facilitate the dissemination of accurate and non-discriminatory information to the public, and also to play an active role in the integration of ethnic Azerbaijani citizens.

The NGOs claim that given the systemic problems faced by ethnic minorities (language barriers, lack of information in ethnic minority languages, vulnerability to disinformation, low levels of integration, less political involvement, etc.), the xenophobic attitude identified after the spread of the virus further exacerbates the current challenge and marginalizes the people being targeted.

“In light of the current developments, it is critically important for each citizen to realize their civic duty and to promote public consolidation,” said the statement signed by 12 NGOs.

They further demanded a proper response to xenophobic content on social media, urging politicians and public figures to advocate for equality, while advising civic activists and other groups to report on xenophobic content on Facebook and Twitter.

In response to the xenophobic statements, ethnic Azerbaijani civic activists launched a campaign on social networks, stating that they take pride in their Georgian citizenship, that they speak Georgian, and that they are observing the restrictions imposed by the authorities, including the self-isolation order. Many Georgian citizens showed support for their ethnic Azerbaijani compatriots.

Sozar Subari, the Prime Minister's Adviser on Regional Development, says it is incorrect to think that the spread of coronavirus in Marneuli and the nearby Bolnisi happened because the locals were not informed about the virus. He added that the cases of COVID-19 in Marneuli have no connection to the local traditional holiday Novruz, which is usually celebrated on March 20.

"The spread is unrelated to Novruz Bayram, which is one of their most distinguished celebrations. I think for the first time in the history of this holiday, no public celebrations were held in Marneuli: citizens celebrated it at home, away from their neighbors, and in this respect, we would like to thank our Azerbaijani compatriots who were very careful to follow the instructions given by the state,” said Subari.

He went on to explain that the quarantine was put into place after the first occurrence of the virus there, the source of which has yet to be identified.

“We do not know the area of distribution. At present, we know where to look for the likely infected and when we know the full picture, it will doubtless be nothing alarming,” he said.

Following the lockdown of Marneuli and Bolnisi, it was announced that the governmental webpage, which provides information, news and updates on the coronavirus situation in the country, would be made available in Armenian and Azerbaijani, as Marneuli and Bolnisi municipalities are inhabited mostly by ethnic minorities.

Medicine and banking services are being provided without interruption to the locals of both municipalities, and volunteers are actively involved in the process.

Georgia’s Agriculture Minister Levan Davitashvili said that all vehicles moving inside and outside the quarantine zone will be disinfected to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

He also said that products that are produced in the Marneuli and Bolnisi quarantine zones are ‘absolutely safe and harmless’ in terms of spread of the new coronavirus.

By Tea Mariamidze

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26 March 2020 17:37