May 08, 2020

Coronavirus: ICG Report assesses Abkhazian Response to COVID-19

A new report published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) has assessed the response of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Tskhinvali Region) to the coronavirus crisis. In it they note that both regions are "plagued with medical supply shortages, ailing economies and international isolation" and Abkhazia, while seeking aid and supplies from abroad (unlike South Ossetia), "lacks infrastructure, medical professionals and has an ageing population, with nearly 20 % of residents over 60 years of age”. Moreover, it noted that Abkhazia's healthcare professionals are at particular risk, with over 80% of them being over 60 years old. 

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On May 7, the International Crisis Group, a think tank, published a report assessing response to COVID-19 pandemic by Moscow-backed authorities in Georgia’s occupied territories – Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia.

The Crisis Group argued that the pandemic posed significant threat for residents of both Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region – plagued with medical supply shortages, ailing economies and international isolation.

According to the Crisis Group, Abkhaz and Tskhinvali authorities – both backed by Moscow – chose to respond to the public health crisis in different ways.

The think tank highlighted, that while Sokhumi sought to secure international aid to address the shortage in essential medical supplies, Tskhinvali did not budge from its self-imposed isolation, denying access to the occupied region to all but a single relief organization.

Coronavirus Pandemic in Tskhinvali Region

Crisis Group said Tskhinvali region is “at greatest risk” in terms of tackling the pandemic. “A significant part of the population – 17 % – is elderly,” it wrote, adding that “hospitals are severely under-equipped,” and one of the few physicians in the region “refused” to work due to lack of basic protective equipment.

Tskhinvali authorities prohibited movement to and from Georgia proper in February, arguing that “this step was necessary to prevent the virus from spreading,” the Crisis Group noted.

The think tank said Russia – main benefactor of separatist authorities – ceased exporting medical supplies to the region in early March, because of its own soaring domestic demand. The Crisis cited a “local official,” who told that “disinfectant was in short supply,” and that Tskhinvali authorities appealed to local clothing makers “to sew masks and protective gowns for medics.”

The Crisis Group called attention to the fact that most of region’s healthcare personnel had not been trained “for years, lacking even the know-how to operate 26 ventilators delivered from Russia.”

It noted that the illegally deployed Russian military base “swiftly imposed strict rules,” including nightly curfews in a bid to protect the servicemen from the spread of the virus. “Russian soldiers now don masks and gloves,” said the think tank.

The Crisis Group assessed Moscow-backed Tskhinvali authorities’ response to the pandemic as “slow.” It noted that, despite public health risks, Tskhinvali leader Anatoly Bibilov delivered a “state address” attended by hundreds of locals on March 25, and allowed to carry on with a youth wrestling tournament conducted on March 22-25. “Schools and universities remained open later than anywhere else in the South Caucasus,” the think tank wrote.

The think tank mentioned the efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) aimed at mitigating the dire humanitarian situation in the occupied region, adding that it had already provided supplies to the local jail and planned to deliver food and masks to elderly residents, “including in remote villages.”

However, noted the think tank, “ICRC says it is prepared to step up operations, [although] it lacks medical staff on the ground to assess local health needs.” Tskhinvali authorities barred WHO staff from entering the occupied region from Georgia proper, arguing it would “undermine their claim to independence,” Crisis Group said.

The Crisis Group stressed that, “given the scope of the crisis,” Tskhinvali authorities were taking “a serious risk” by issuing “political demands” and impeding active cooperation with the WHO and other UN agencies. “If they [Tskhinvali] cannot find an acceptable compromise on travel for WHO specialists, at a minimum they should communicate with them online or by telephone to provide the information necessary to support local efforts at preventing the spread of the virus and organizing medical supply deliveries,” reads the report.

The think tank argued that Tskhinvali authorities should “immediatelY’ find a way to enable dispatch of a WHO assessment mission.

COVID-19 Crisis in Abkhazia

The think tank evaluated the situation in Abkhazia as “better” than in Tskhinvali region, though noted it was also at risk due to some “vulnerabilities.”

“Abkhazia suffers from weak infrastructure, lacks medical professionals and has an ageing population, with nearly 20 % of residents over 60 years of age,” it noted, adding that 80 % of health professionals were “themselves at high risk, in their sixties or older.”

The Crisis Group cited a foreign diplomat claiming that if the region’s health staff contracted the disease, Abkhazia would lose “all its doctors within days.”

According to the Crisis Group, Abkhaz authorities have been “slow” to impose physical (social) distancing. It said the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with leadership polls held locally, and that there was “little evidence” of taking any preventive measures in the run-up to the event or on the polling day.

Abkhaz authorities closed two crossing points on the dividing line connecting the occupied region to Georgia proper, although eleven people were allowed to leave in order to visit Georgian hospitals, and one of them later tested positive for COVID-19, wrote the think tank.

As of April 20, the report said, Abkhaz authorities started to relax movement restrictions and allowed reopening of markets in major towns.

In early March, the Crisis Group said, Sokhumi reached out for outside assistance, which was met by the UN Development Program (UNDP) “delivering over 12,000 packages of basic medical supplies and sanitizers purchased with U.S. and EU financial support.” Furthermore, Crisis Group noted, WHO specialists carried out a needs assessment that was facilitated by the UNDP.

Meanwhile, Russia provided 500 COVID-19 test kits and sent soldiers “to support disinfection of public spaces.” However, Abkhaz authorities –depending on Russia for subsidizing around “60 %” of its budget – are worried about economic consequences of the pandemic, the Crisis Group reckoned.

Trade and tourism, “pillars” of region’s economy, would be hit hardest by the fallout from COVID-19, according to the report. The Crisis Group argued that Abkhazia’s dependence on tourism “boded ill for a rapid recovery.”