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Europa United welcomes Giorgi Jgharkava to our team of Contributors. Giorgi is a recent graduate from Georgia and his research interests include Central and Eastern European history and contemporary politics. In his first piece for Europa United, Giorgi examines the role of the Georgian Church in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi

Since its first confirmed COVID-19 case on the 26th February, Georgia has been coping with the epidemic surprisingly well. As of the 3rd of April,the country has detected 134 cases – the lowest in Eastern Europe including the Caucasus region. Georgia can also boast its rate of recoveries currently standing at 26. The numbers can be hypothetically explained by various factors, some of which are simple luck or a less powerful stain of the virus. However, guesses aside, one could definitely argue that the country’s response to the epidemic has been effective which could play an important role during the process.

The choice of defence

From the two of the common epidemic policies of herd immunity and social distancing Georgia has opted for the latter. As we have already witnessed in the case of Britain, the policy of herd immunity requires a healthcare system with enormous capacity, something which Georgia does not have. On the other hand, social distancing policy can secure the healthcare system from overloading – otherwise the number of confirmed cases can easily surge which could lead to a higher death rate, more infected medical personnel and a lack of attention to the patients with other diagnosis. Given the importance of the healthcare system in terms of the county’s security, its collapse can eventually have a spillover effect on the economic and political domain. Hence, Georgia’s decision to implement social distancing was the right approach.

Communion by spoon

However, the darker side of social distancing is its effect on the economy. While the border remains closed and businesses shut down, the oil prices are on downturn too. For a country like Georgia, this is a blow for the tourism industry, less foreign investments, less money transfers from abroad and less export. In this respect, pausing the economy with social distancing can have disastrous consequences. Despite all this, social distancing remains the only solution for the epidemic. Especially due to its exceptional effectiveness in Georgia, which was even recently highlighted by Foreign Policy when it listed Georgia alongside Taiwan, Canada, South Korea and Iceland as success stories in combating the epidemic. Georgia is doing well, but it cannot afford not to because it has much more to lose due to its economic backwardness and it needs to be quick and effective in this battle.

Keeping the faith

While Georgia is traveling through its precarious path, the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC), one of the most influential institutions in the country, does not seem to be playing a role of a helping hand during this hardship. Despite the fact that the government strongly encourages its citizens not to leave their homes and forbids the gathering of more than three persons, the GOC carries on with religious rituals and has failed to suspend giving communions with shared spoons – meaning that the decisions of the Church could endanger the outcome of special measures taken in order to cope with the epidemic. One could even question the reasoning for the whole social distancing policy if the country’s major religious institution do not follow it. It’s worth mentioning that the religious activities, due to its peculiar rituals, can be one of the primary sources of spreading the virus – South Korea can be a good example.

Despite the fact that all other religious organizations have voluntarily closed down for laymen, the GOC have not – fearing that it will be a sign of weakness; a sign of irrelevance during desperate times; and a sign of retreat from its dominant position in public space. For a young democracy like Georgia, the crisis could be an opportunity to enhance its citizens’ awareness on civic duties. While the country has shown exceptional solidarity and civic responsibility, the GOC’s activities keep putting an average faithful Orthodox Georgian into a dilemma – religion or state? The approach of the GOC can be better seen if one takes into account the statement of one of its popular clergymen, who boasted that the Georgian Church has been showing a better devotion to its faith than the fanatic Muslims. The extremist decisions are putting the whole population in danger, especially when the major Orthodox holidays are approaching.

Decision time

It is clear that if the Georgian government wants to eventually arrive from the crisis as a success story, it needs to cope with the Church. When the security of the whole population is at high risk, it’s up to the government to act. However, the ruling party is not inclined to go against the church, even if it means merely taking care of the country’s security. In this respect, the upcoming parliamentary elections in autumn seems to be playing a decisive role – the government fears that if it resists the church it will lose votes. In the turmoil where the state and the church are both respectively being irresponsible, the medical personnel, especially the representatives of the infectious diseases institutions can play a crucial role. While their work is much appreciated and praised by the wide populace, their credibility also rises. Hence, their calls for the church can be decisive. This will be a first step towards the path of state institutions taking back the public spaces which are held by religion.

It should be emphasized that this won’t be a fight against religion, but a battle against the epidemic. Again, Georgia has much more to lose than many others and the accountable institutions have to be accountable to their population, not religious institution.

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Giorgi Jgharkava
Giorgi Jgharkava is a recent graduate from Georgia. He majored in International Relations with a BA at Tbilisi State University and European Interdisciplinary Studies with an MA at College of Europe. Giorgi's research interests include Central and Eastern European history and contemporary politics.

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