“We’re afraid of losing our jobs” - Georgian city Akhalkalaki hunkers down for COVID-19
Life in Marneuli and Bolnisi has come to a standstill after being put into quarantine when a local resident was found to have coronavirus and still appeared at a crowded religious event in the area, potentially infecting dozens of people.
The municipality of Marneuli is mostly populated by Azerbaijanis, and social media users have begun to post angry and intolerant comments on social media, accusing ethnic minorities of spreading the virus.
The comments said that they did not know the Georgian language and therefore did not know about the epidemic and about the state of emergency, which was announced on March 23.
The city of Akhalkalaki in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of Georgia is home to a large, densely-packed Armenian community. What do they know about the epidemic and the state of emergency, and how has life changed?
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Knowing nothing of the virus would be impossible, since the typical life of Akhalkalaki residents has changed so drastically. All borders, retail establishments, cafes, restaurants, hotels, gambling and other institutions have been shut down.
All Russian and Armenian TV channels, which is mainly what people watch in Javakheti, report on the coronavirus.
The governor’s office is actively spreading information about the state of emergency in Armenian through local media.
Already 343 people are in self-isolation, and another 27 are in quarantine, but not in Akhalkalaki. These are local residents who returned home after the state of emergency had already been declared, and quarantine became mandatory for all who enter Georgia.
The streets of Akhalkalaki are not crowded, and many are trying to comply with instructions to stay home. But there are a lot of cars.
“Yes, we know about the virus, but what can we do? We can’t do anything. I came to the city to buy cigarettes,” says a resident of the village of Kulikam.
In grocery stores, markets and pharmacies, workers wear gloves and masks. They let customers in one at a time, and no more than 10 people are allowed in at once. But this means that there is sometimes a whole crowd of people waiting at the door.
“We are afraid of the virus, but what can we do? We need to get money out at the bank and buy things from the store. I had to take the children with me, there is no one at home to leave them with,” says a young mother with two girls who was standing outside the bank.
No more work
Citizens of Akhalkalaki are no less afraid of the coronavirus than of the economic consequences.
Spring is upon us, but many local residents will not be able to go to work in Russia—a traditional way for people in this region to find work.
Work in all industries, from construction to trade, has screeched to a halt.
Store owners say bulk buying has stopped, and the shelves are full.
“There was a boom at first. They swept everything off the shelves. Now there is no shortage of goods in the store, and everyone is bringing more in from Tbilisi. But there is a shortage of demand. After buying everything they need, people are sitting at home. It’s rare that anyone comes in,” says the seller of a store in Akhalkalaki.
Church services held with no worshippers
The beginning of the epidemic coincided with the beginning of Lent. However, the Sura Hai church in the center of Akhalkalaki is empty.
The vicar of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Samtskhe-Javakheti and Tsalka decided not to endanger the flock, and instead holds rituals behind closed doors, without parishioner participation.
The Armenian Church called on the local population to strictly follow the sanitation and hygiene instructions given by Georgian authorities.
Weddings and baptisms were canceled indefinitely. Funeral ceremonies are held only in the cemetery, and the church urged people to refrain from mass funerals and memorial services, as well as from traditional condolences with a handshake.