Like many countries worldwide, for Georgia’s healthcare sector and economy, 2021 was full of challenges and uncertainties, mostly due to the spread of coronavirus and gradual appearance of new strains.
The country met the beginning of 2021 with Covid-related restrictions: public transport halted, schools, universities, kindergartens and ski resorts closed, a curfew in force from 9 PM till 5 AM, and then unpleasant news – the appearance of the so-called “British” Covid-19 strain.
The new Covid-19 variant was little different from the others in terms of severity or lethality, but it did have increased transmission.
Georgians protested the related restrictions several times- citizens, business representatives, and political party members took to the streets demanding the regulations be eased for the sake of the economy, which had been severely affected by travel bans and various restrictions in the operation of services.
Mid-February, certain restrictions were lifted, with schools resuming in-person learning, and restaurants being allowed to resume outdoor service.
On February 17, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, the favourite “crisis manager” of the ruling party Georgian Dream and its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was by then well-known for his strict approach to Covid restrictions, resigned. He was replaced by Irakli Garibashvili, who started development of a more “liberal” approach towards businesses that had suffered significant damage during the several months of restrictions.
Within a week of Garibashvili’s appointment, the Georgian government lifted almost all remaining coronavirus-related restrictions except the curfew. At the time, Georgia was recording up to 400 new coronavirus cases daily on average.
The country started an active vaccination campaign in March, with the first batch of 43,200 doses of AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine received on March 13. Later, the country also received 29,250 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. On March 30, Pfizer vaccination also kicked off. Georgia’s vaccination plan envisaged immunizing 1.7 million citizens, or approximately 60% of the population aged 18 and over, by the end of 2021.
However, Georgia’s citizens showed far less interest and trust in the vaccines than health officials expected. Despite constant calls from doctors and authorities to get vaccinated, the vaccination rate in Georgia remains low even in December. To date, just 39.4% of the adult population is fully vaccinated.
The Government of Georgia reopened land and sea borders on June 1, 2021, and on June 30, lifted the nationwide curfew which had been in force since November 28, 2020, to curb the spread of the virus.
The summer turned out to be particularly difficult in terms of virus spread, seeing Georgia become a “red zone” country, with the virus spreading rapidly.
The US gift of half a million Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 shots arrived in the country on July 23. Vaccination with the first dose of the Pfizer jab begun on July 26. At the time, more than 80% of the coronavirus cases in Georgia were of the Delta strain.
In the same period, given the particularly difficult situation, the government decided to restore compulsory face mask wearing outdoors.
The Georgian government imposed some restrictions between August 14 and September 4 to curb the spread of coronavirus, including the suspension of public transport, which was then extended until September 13. When public transport resumed, the government kicked off a lottery with cash prizes for vaccinated citizens to boost interest in Covid-19 vaccination. This project had little effect on the vaccination rate. 200 GEL one-off gifts were then offered to over 60s for getting their first jabs. At the end of December, the initiative was extended to include over 50s.
Due to the high numbers of the coronavirus cases detected on a daily basis (up to 5000 cases and 80 deaths), after the summer holidays, schools, higher and vocational educational institutions, and kindergartens were allowed to resume in-person learning only on October 4. Until then, the institutions worked through online distance learning from September 15. Parents were thereafter given the freedom to register their kids for online learning or in-person attendance, with Thursdays open to register or unregister a child. Teachers were (and still are) forced to divide their time between the classroom and online classes.
Despite the deteriorated epidemiological situation, the elections were held in Georgia on October 30 with the observance of safety norms.
On November 8, the Board of Experts greenlit Covid-19 booster shots for those aged 16 and over, where only over-50s and risk-groups had been eligible before. Citizens can book their booster jabs five months after their second dose.
On December 1, the concept of ‘Green Passports’ was introduced in Georgia. As such, citizens are now able to enter many facilities only if they are carrying physical or digital green passports. “Green” status is granted to those fully vaccinated, those who have passed a 72-hour-validity PCR or 24-hour-validity antigen test, and those who have recovered from coronavirus. Green Passports are required of all citizens over 18.
Also from December 1, restaurants had their hourly restrictions lifted, and the number of spectators allowed in cinemas, theaters, and operas was increased from 30 to 50%.
On December 20, the first two cases of the new Omicron strain were detected in Georgia. Within a week, that number had grown to 51.
“The Omicron strain of coronavirus has already been detected in 110 countries, and because of the rate at which it spreads, it could have a significant impact on health systems, even if it poses less danger than the Delta variant, and lead to significant morbidity,” a WHO report noted.
The number of Omicron cases in Georgia is expected to rise over and following the New Year holidays, and experts warn the number of coronavirus jabs and booster doses should also increase to avoid further deterioration of the epidemiological situation.
The idea of double-jabbed citizens being required to get a booster shot is being considered by the government’s Coordination Council, as is the idea of the time gap between last jab and booster shot being reduced.
The current epidemiological situation in Georgia is as follows: As of December 28, Georgia’s total case tally since the first case in February 2020 reached 928,030. Among them, 888,022 people recovered and 13,646 died.
The daily test-positivity rate now stands at 6.26 %, while it was 5.74 % in the past 14 days.
As of December 28, 2,481.500 people had received the Covid-19 vaccine, at around 13,377 recipients per day.
Ahead of the New Year celebrations, doctors urge citizens to observe coronavirus recommendations more carefully.
By Ana Dumbadze