Georgia and Iran: life near an epicenter of the epidemic
First published April 8, 2020
Iranian tourist Shahab Karimi arrived in Georgia in February 2020 and ended up staying a lot longer than the four-day trip expected — instead of sightseeing, he was taken directly from the airport into the infectious disease hospital, and then spent two weeks in a quarantine zone in the resort town Abastumani.
Karimi tested negative for coronavirus, but was unable to return to his homeland — Iran was the second country after China with which Georgia completely shut down all borders due to the coronavirus threat.
Karimi went viral in Georgia after a video was published showing him talking to journalists after leaving the hospital before being literally dragged back into the clinic by doctors.
Now, he has been invited on popular talk shows and, despite the social distancing recommendations, people still take selfies with him on the street.
The rapid onset of coronavirus in Iran
The first case of COVID-19 in Iran was officially reported on February 19. At first, the country’s authorities paid little attention to the threat and, despite the risk of mass infection, held parliamentary elections on February 21.
The number of cases grew, but the authorities still refused to take any serious precautions, and despite the spreading epidemic, and clerics encouraged believers to visit holy places in the city of Qom, which became the epicenter of the infection in Iran.
As a result, for a long time, Iran was the second country behind China in number of cases, and the only other country to experience such a big outbreak. And then Italy, Spain and the USA quickly surpassed Iran.
As of April 8, there were more than 65,000 reported coronavirus cases in Iran, and almost 4,000 people have died. But many Iranian citizens and international media agencies think that these numbers are actually a gross underestimation. The head of parliament, the vice-president of Iran and many officials and parliament members have fallen ill with coronavirus.
Georgia canceled all flights to and from Iran on February 23. And since February 26 the government issued an entry ban for all Iranian citizens.
And the first coronavirus case in Georgia came from Iran – Georgia’s “patient zero” is Amil, a 49-year-old Georgian citizen.
His temperature was taken on February 26 on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border and he was immediately taken to an infectious diseases hospital, where he was diagnosed with coronavirus.
The first person with coronavirus in Georgia was also the first to recover. After leaving the hospital, Amil returned home to Marneuli, a city with a majority Azerbaijani population.
He flew to Iran on February 21 to buy carpets for the local mosque. And he was at the very epicenter of the outbreak, in the holy city of Qom. Amil says that while in Iran, he had no idea what was going on.
“Everything seemed normal. Shops were open, people were still visiting holy places. We bought carpets and did not hear a word about a virus spreading in Iran. We did not see a single person in a mask.
Therefore, we were surprised when family members called us and said that the flights had been canceled. We have no other choice but to hire a minibus and drive through Azerbaijan,” says Amil.
Iranians in Georgia
Today, there are thousands of Iranians living in Georgia. From 2016 to 2018, 11,000 Iranian citizens have received a temporary residence permit.
Many of them have been living in Georgia for many years and are conducting business here, mainly in the field of tourism and hospitality.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the state of emergency declared in Georgia, almost all of this activity has been suspended, and the future of the tourism industry is shaky.
In light of the current situation, Iranians in Georgia are faced with serious problems and are searching for ways to survive.
Mohammad Khalehi has been living in Georgia since 2009. He is the director of Sun Georgia, which organizes tours for Iranian tourists coming to Georgia. March and April is usually the busiest time of year, and many Iranians came to Georgia to celebrate the holiday of Novruz Bayram.
Now, because of the coronavirus pandemic, his operations are suspended, he is unable to pay rent on his office, and the future of his business remains uncertain.
“Iranians are greatly interested in Georgia. At least 170 people used to fly in daily from Tehran to Tbilisi,” says Mohammad.
Thanks to the visa-free regime for Iranians, which has been in effect since 2010, and the geographical proximity, Georgia has been an attractive tourist destination for Iranian for many years.
Galt & Taggart consulting company estimates that Iranians bring up to eight million dollars into the Georgian economy each month.
Gruzstat data from 2019 shows that whereas the average tourist spent 1,102 GEL [about $ 350] while visiting Georgia, Iranians spent 2.092 GEL [about $ 660] on average – that is, almost twice as much. Iranians have become one of the most solvent tourists after guests from the United States and Saudi Arabia.
In 2018, Georgia had a record number of Iranian tourists – 291,000. In 2019, their numbers were fewer – around 142,ooo (out of a total of five million tourists).
This is explained by the fact that the Georgian authorities tightened control of Iranian citizens at the border, and many were not allowed to enter country, which even led to protests from the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
But for many Iranians, the problems did not stop there. In recent years, more and more Iranians are choosing to make Georgia their permanent place of residence. They buy real estate and open their businesses here.
Shahab Ashtar, 37 years old, came to Georgia two years ago. He lives here with his family and works as a marketing manager in a Georgian company. He is highly concerned about his future:
“The thing that scares me most is the uncertainty. If the company has no income, how will they pay me? I’m paying the rent for the apartment right now and don’t know if I’ll have the money in the coming months.”
Shahab says that his other compatriots living in Georgia also had problems. They found themselves in the same position as many emigrants living far from home whose lives were turned upside down by the epidemic.
Somaye Nokarisi has been living in Georgia since 2006. His company imports construction materials, cement and decorative bricks from Iran. “This month the supply stopped coming in. Materials are no longer delivered, our revenue is falling. I know this is going to be a difficult year,” says Somaye.
Mohammed Javad Moazeni has been living with his family in Georgia for the last two years. He invested his money in a hotel, and also made money trading stocks. Mohammed says his hotel has been closed after the pandemic outbreak.
“The spread of coronavirus has affected everyone. But it can also be an opportunity to think about better places to invest in the future,” says Moazeni.
Mehdi Khodsiani, 35, an ethnic Georgian from the Iranian province of Fereydan, was left without a source of income. A steelworker by trade, he moved to Georgia in 2009 and received Georgian citizenship.
Both Georgian and Farsi are his native languages, and today he earns money translating. His bureau was located next to the House of Justice in Tbilisi, where Georgian citizens and foreigners come to resolve legal issues.
“I am self-employed and have never complained about a lack of work. But due to the fact that the flights from Iran were suspended and there are no longer Iranians coming to the country, I was forced to close the office,” he says.
Despite his Georgian citizenship, Mehdi is ready to return to Iran if the borders are opened and the economic situation in Georgia does not improve. He says it’s easier to find work there.
But not all Iranians in Georgia want to return to their homeland. Shahab Ashtar says that he earned more in Iran, but settled in Georgia with his family “for the sake of freedom.” And despite the economic difficulties, he does not plan to return.
“If the borders hadn’t been closed…”
The decision to close the borders and suspend travel between the two countries hit not only tourists and expatriates from Iran. Many Georgian citizens had business and personal ties with the country.
Muslims living in Georgia do not just travel to Iran to buy carpets. Sheikh Mirtag Asadov told JAMnews that Georgian Shiite Muslims regularly make pilgrimages to the holy city of Qom. Last year, a group of 150 people from the Marneuli visited the city.
Caucasus University in Tbilisi has been collaborating with Iranian universities for 15 years. A delegation from the university traveled to Iran on February 22, and was put in full quarantine upon returning.
Giorgi Lobzhanidze is an expert on Iran. He is carefully following all the events currently unfolding in the country. He has many friends and acquaintances there. In his opinion, the virus spread so quickly in Iran because of the “special way of socializing” that Iranians have.
“They love to stroll around the stores. Iranians who haven’t seen each other in a while will kiss each other three times when greeting each other. From an epidemiological point of view, this is very dangerous. They love to travel during the holidays of Novruz-Bayram and New Years.
I’m reading Iranian news sources and see that few people are heeding the recommendations to stay home. There is still a lot of domestic travel within the country. If the borders had not been closed, many Iranian tourists would have traveled to Georgia.”
Experts believe that the borders between the two countries were closed just in time, and that this, along with other measures, helped reduce the number of coronavirus cases in Georgia, which is significantly lower than that of neighboring countries.
Supported by RLNE
First Published: 11.04.2020