A new survey of public opinion in Georgia during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed broad support for the authorities' response to the crisis.
When COVID-19 arrived in Georgia, there were initially doubts about the ability of the southern Caucasus country to contain the deadly virus. The country registered its first case on February 26. It was a man who was returning to Iran, a country badly hit by the pandemic. Soon after, on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the pandemic. In the following weeks, the Georgian authorities imposed a curfew, closed the country's four largest cities, and instituted strict entry restrictions.
This strict response was widely praised for its effectiveness, as were the three physicians who raised it. Georgia was the only former Soviet republic of 15 countries to which the European Union opened its borders on July 1. According to StopCov.ge, the Georgian government's official portal for COVID-19, the country registered 1,085 cases of COVID-19, including 16 deaths. Its neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan have fared much worse, with 36,162 and 28,980 cases respectively, according to the Johns Hopkins University map.
Tbilisi's response seems to have also won the applause of ordinary Georgians. The new survey, published on July 23, was conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) with support from the Netherlands Embassy in Tbilisi. Their conclusions are based on six periods of data collection, between April 29 and June 6, at the worst time of the Georgia epidemic. They include interviews with more than 6200 people from all regions of the country under the control of the Government.
It is important to note that the survey indicates that the vast majority of the Georgian public approves of the measures applied by the Government during the crisis. Some measures, such as the use of masks in closed areas or the imposition of night curfews, had the support of 94% and 83% of the respondents respectively.
Despite their support for those measures, most respondents were in favor of reopening the economy rather than waiting longer for the crisis to subside before doing so. In a country where the median monthly salary is about $ 300 and where there is little or no social assistance, it is perhaps not surprising that many Georgians seem to fear greater poverty, at least as much as the pandemic. The least supported policies, although supported by the majority, appear to be those that entail an immediate and direct economic loss, such as restricting the sale of some products online and increasing fines for violating emergency regulations. An exception to this trend was the negative attitude towards reopening the country to international tourists, a possibility that only 37% of those surveyed supported.
The risk of impoverishment is palpable: the proportion of households that do not declare any type of income increased from around 1% before the crisis to around 13% during the pandemic. Approximately half of the employed population lost the job, half of which finally returned to work in early June. Meanwhile, consumer sentiment remains low, and few Georgians suggest that they would shop and socialize in bars and cafes again even after restrictions have been lifted, with potentially significant repercussions for the service sector and economic recovery.
The authors of the survey point out that Georgian society seems to have “gathered around the flag” during the pandemic, with markedly positive opinions on the actions of institutions and public figures.
A heated debate ensued over the Georgian Orthodox Church, which was accused of defying the government's social distancing measures when it continued to hold community worship. Only 4% of Orthodox Christians in Georgia stated that they attended this year's Easter liturgy, compared to 44% the year before. Only a third of those surveyed stated that they approved of the Church continuing to serve communion wine from a shared spoon during the pandemic, an ancient tradition that clerics strongly advocated. While Georgians may have listened to government advice about their priests, these incidents had no statistically significant impact on the public approval of the Church, which remains one of the most trusted institutions in this Orthodox Christian-majority country.
However, church performance did not experience the increase in approval ratings that other Georgia public institutions experienced. This is potentially significant, given that even the most unreliable public institutions saw a rise in public acclaim: the approval of the performance of the Georgian Parliament and President Salome Zurabishvili increased by 21 and 16% respectively.
The most notable change was seen in the approval of the performance of the Prime Minister of Georgia, Georgi Gakharia, which went from 21% in November and December 2019 to 65% during the survey period.
Before COVID-19 arrived, the political scene in Tbilisi was turbulent even by Georgian standards. In 2019, thousands of youth from opposition parties and grassroots protest movements took to the streets to voice a series of complaints. They rebuked the government for the failures of its drug policy and demanded an end to the reforms of the electoral system, as they feared that it would disproportionately benefit the ruling party, Georgian Dream. When Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov addressed the Georgian Parliament on June 20, a wave of protests erupted, to which the police responded with rubber bullets. As a result, 18-year-old Mako Gomuri lost an eye; eye patches became a symbol of the protest movement.
One of the figures that has sparked the protesters' anger has been billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, former president of the Georgian Dream, considered the most powerful man in Georgia today. However, the majority (53%) of those surveyed stated that it was acceptable for strong leaders to control the government in times of crisis, provided they were effective. This appears to be part of an inconsistent public stance towards democracy as an abstract ideal: the percentage of respondents who stated that democracy was the ideal form of government increased from 49% in November-December 2019 to 60% during the pandemic period .
Although the majority of Georgians approved and complied with public health safeguard measures, the survey also reveals a significant presence of misinformation and disinformation in Georgian public life. For example, 9% of respondents believe that COVID-19 is related to 5G mobile infrastructure and more than 40% believe that the virus was deliberately created in a laboratory. These positions may influence attitudes toward vaccination, OpenDemocracy reported based on the same survey.
Georgians can credit their leaders, institutions, and in particular their health system, for having saved them from the worst results of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is difficult to say whether they will continue to be so well disposed towards their rulers once normalcy – so to speak – returns. These views are not trivial in light of the fact that Georgia holds parliamentary elections in October.
Dustin Gilbreath, director of research for the CRRC, told Global Voices that the goodwill gained during the COVID-19 crisis could give the affected Georgian Dream party a boost in the October elections:
The level of trust and performance assessments, both specifically about COVID-19 and generally, surged during the crisis. The data shows that even what had been largely unpopular institutions like Parliament experienced large gains. The electoral implications are clear – Georgian Dream, as a party, will benefit from the government’s COVID-19 response. While there is still a race for the elections and no one knows what the new parliament will look like, the response likely changed the opinions of many who had been upset with the government about the many scandals of 2019.
The level of confidence and performance evaluations, both specifically on COVID-19 and in general, increased during the crisis. The data shows that even what had been largely unpopular institutions, such as Parliament, saw huge gains. The electoral consequences are clear: Sueño Georgiano, as a party, will benefit from the Government's response to COVID-19. Although still short of elections and no one knows what the new Parliament will look like, the response likely changed the opinions of many who were upset with the Government about the many scandals of 2019.
However, that will depend on the appearance of a second wave of the virus, which only 27% of the Georgian public anticipates. In any case, a lot can change in three months, from infection rates to public mood.