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Coronavirus, Great Pandemics and Georgia: Short Historical Tale

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Triumph of Death (detail), c. 1562, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Authors: Prof. Dr. Tedo Dundua, Dr. Apolon Tabuashvili, Dr. Emil Avdaliani

As the world continues to experience deep effects (death rate, economic downturn, slowdown of globalization) of the novel Coronavirus, it is interesting to look at all the pandemics from a historical point of view. Below are several famous epidemics that affected the world and Georgia in Medieval or Modern and Contemporary periods, and which showed the countries making similar coordinated steps to stop them.

In general, after the appearance of very mobile Mongols in Georgia, we often find the facts of the spread of incurable diseases in the historical sources. According to the Georgian chronicler, king David Ulugh fell ill at the fortified frontier during the war between the Golden Horde and the Ilkhanate troops (Kartlis Tskhovreba /History of Georgia/. Editor-in-Chief R. Metreveli. Tb. 2008, p. 607). King David Ulugh and his son Giorgi died from the same disease in 1270 (Kartlis Tskhovreba /History of Georgia/. Editor-in-Chief R. Metreveli, p. 608). According to the opinion established in historiography, David Ulugh’s disease should have been typhus (Studies in History of Georgia /in Georg./. v. III. Tb. 1979, p. 576). King Vakhtang II of Eastern Georgia died from the same disease in 1292 (Kartlis Tskhovreba /History of Georgia/. Editor-in-Chief R. Metreveli, p. 651).  

The Black Death

Information about the appearance of a new epidemic, which later became known as the “Black Death”, came to Europe in 1346 when a plague was reported in the East (V. J. Derbes. De Mussis and the Great Plague of 1348. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). 196(1). Chicago. 1966, pp. 59-62). The name “Black Death” originated from the specifics of the disease itself as the infection usually turned the skin into black colour with such symptoms such as fever and joint pains.

A year later, in 1347, first signs of the plague appeared in the Crimean Peninsula and the disease was most likely brought by the Tatar (Mongol) armies of Khan Janibeg, ruler of the Golden Hoard, when the latter besieged Caffa (nowadays Feodosya), a town which served as an important commercial Genoese city. According to the account of the contemporary, Gabriele de’ Mussi, the infection spread among the Mongol troops from man to man or from rats to humans (M. Wheelis. Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa. Historical Review. Vol. 8, No. 9. Atlanta. 2002, pp. 971-975). It is believed that the Mongols catapulted the corpses of the infected over the city walls, infecting those inside and poisoning wells (V. J. Derbes. De Mussis and the Great Plague of 1348. JAMA, pp. 59-62).

Caffa’s trade relations with the Mediterranean conditioned a quick spread of the disease to Europe via Italy. It is believed that the infection was carried by rats on Genoese commercial vessels sailing from Caffa to Italy.

In the wake of the Black Death, socio-economic relations across much of Europe and Middle East drastically changed. A major reason was a near obliteration of 1/3 of the population (some think about as mush as ½ of the entire populace) of Europe (N. Johnson. M. Koyama. Negative Shocks and Mass Persecutions: Evidence from the Black Death. Journal of Economic Growth. vol. 24(4). Heidelberg. 2019, pp. 345-395). Cities and entire villages turned empty – the process which impacted the existing economic relations between cities and the village. On a positive side though, the Black Death pandemic helped to develop early stages for modern medicine paving the way for hospital-like management.

Because of Caffa’s trade relations with Sebastopolis/Sokhumi in Georgia, simultaneously with the mass spread of the Black Death plague in Europe, the pandemic reached Georgia during the reign of David IX (1346-1360). The spread of the Black Death in the country is confirmed by one note of 1348 – in the country with great hardship, there was also “great death” (Ф. Д. Жордания. Описание рукописей Тифлисского церковного музея карталино-кахетинского духовенства. II. Тифлис. 1902. № 575), which, most likely, means the spread of the Black Death. And great hardship means that agriculture and commerce were depleted, and the state borders were closed. The deadly pandemic spread in Georgia in the 1340s and lasted for a long time. According to  Georgian historian prince Vakhushti, the epidemic was widespread during the early reign of David IX’s successor, Bagrat V (1360-1393), and its scale was so wide that even the queen died along with many others (Kartlis Tskhovreba /History of Georgia/. v. IV. Editor S. Kaukhchishvili. Tb. 1973, p. 262).

The epidemic of plague appeared from time to time in Georgia in later periods too and had devastating consequences for the population, e.g., the epidemic spread in the capital Tbilisi in 1770, caused the death of the fifth of the population.

This fact is described in detail by the German traveler Johann Anton Güldenstädt, who notes that churches and cemeteries in Tbilisi occupy a large place in the already small area for the 20000 inhabitants. Overpopulated and downhill location on the clay soil of the city, which is completely swallowed up during the rain, and has no drainage, existence of the cemeteries, poor police, which allows the streets to be covered with garbage, and so on, – [All this] poisons the air, so dysentery, malignant fever and epidemics, as well as plague, are not uncommon. In 1770 the latter killed 4000 inhabitants. Great mortality would have increased even more if the houses had not been ventilated because of bad doors, paper windows, fireplaces, and so on. There is always air circulation. In 1770 during the plague the sick were mostly taken to the streets, and it was observed that there were relatively more of them left alive than those lying in the house (Johannes Gueldenstaedtius. Peregrinatio Georgica. Tomus Prior. Textum Germanicum cum Conversione Georgica Edidit Commentariisque Instruxit G. Gelašvili. Tb. 1962, p. 89).

The fact of the 1770 epidemic is mentioned by one of the Baratashvilis who notes that the king left the city, he himself took his sick son to the village, where the latter recovered by virtue of the healthy air (Materials for History of Georgia and the Caucasus /in Georg./. Part 28. Tb. 1950, p. 57).

As we can see, Georgians with a plague were moved to the streets. At the same time, they were taken away from the city to the countryside because there was more chance of healing them in the fresh air. People with the disease were given certain medicines too. And the main way to protect healthy population from an epidemic was to stay away from the place where disease was spread.

The disease spread in Tbilisi at the end of the 18th century, but its scale was not large. As prince Alexander reported from Tbilisi on November 21, 1797, to his mother, queen Darejan, the disease was in Ganja and Karabakh, while in Tbilisi only one person died (Antiquities of Georgia /in Georg./. v. III. Editor E. Takaishvili. Tb. 1910, p. 226). Despite its small spread, the plague was there in the country until the spring of 1798 (Platon Ioseliani. Life of Giorgi XIII. Editor A. Gatserelia. Tb. 1978, p. 51), and that is why the pompously planned funeral ceremony of Erekle II, king of Eastern Georgia, was held in a rather modest way.

In the early 19th century, quarantine was introduced in three places (Garetubani, Ortachala and Avlabari) around Tbilisi to prevent the spread of the disease (Data for the Early 19th Century History of Georgia: Joseph Shagubatov – Description of the Internal Situation of East Georgia and Imereti. The Georgian Translation of the Russian Text, Research, Commentaries, Indices and Facsimiles are Presented for Publishing by A. Tabuashvili and G. Zhuzhunasvili. Tb. 2015, p. 25). Nevertheless, the plague epidemic hit Georgia in 1804, killing 1570 people (J. Samushia. Sergei Tuchkov’s References About Georgia /in Georg. with Engl. summary/. Proceedings of Institute of Georgian History, Faculty of Humanities, Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University. XI. Tb. 2016, p. 200).

Particularly devastating was the plague of 1811 in Western Georgia, which was brought to the country by Russian soldiers fighting the Ottomans. More than 30000 people died in Western Georgia alone as a result of the epidemic. The disease also spread to Eastern Georgia, killing several thousand people there (Studies in History of Georgia /in Georg./. v. IV. Tb. 1973, p. 921).

Smallpox Disease

Another great pandemic was smallpox.  Large-scale death rates were reported in the 18th century in Europe, where in some years around 400000 people died annually of smallpox. Moreover, one-third of the survivors went blind (A. Geddes. The History of Smallpox. Clinics in Dermatology. 24. Birmingham. 2006, pp. 152-157). The recurrent smallpox epidemic also caused various attempts to combat smallpox till the discovery of inoculation as an effective vaccination.

The smallpox epidemic was spreading from time to time in Georgia too. One of the historical documents mentions the smallpox epidemic. This document is a letter of Erekle II, compiled on May 11, 1772, and addressed to commander Revaz Amilakhvari. In it, among other things, it is mentioned that the smallpox was spread in Tbilisi and the royal family had to leave the city (The Documents Issued by Erekle II. 1736-1797. Editor M. Chumburidze. Tb. 2008, p. 82).

Güldenstädt also mentions this fact and informs us about the method of preventing the spreading of smallpox: “On May 15 (1772) more than 100 children were inoculated, and I especially watched my house owner’s 6-year-old healthy boy and girl who was not even a year old… One week before the illness and during the illness children are not given meat, fish and rice, they are given only wheat bread and milk; however, breast, horse and donkey’s milk are considered the healthiest, while cow’s milk is considered the most useless. The inoculator made not deep, bloody, cross-shaped incision, 1/2 inch in size, in the groove between the thumb and forefinger with the tip of a large knife; he would lift the tip of a knife into the horn, where the smallpox serum was, clean the blood with a cotton swab, and put a poisoned knife on the wound, then he used to put cotton on a wound, and wrap it in a piece of cloth. The children usually had fresh air and recovered before May 19, with three freckles on the wound. On May 22, they became swollen and white, on May 23 they joined each other. The children were not sick, and the boy ran barefoot. On this day I went out of town and returned on the 2nd of June; I met the boy recovered and learned that he had no more freckles…” (Johannes Gueldenstaedtius. Peregrinatio Georgica. Tomus Prior, p. 63-65).

According to Güldenstädt, on May 23, 1772, he visited the king’s son, prince Yulon, who had been given a smallpox inoculation a few days earlier (Johannes Gueldenstaedtius. Peregrinatio Georgica. Tomus Prior, p. 67).

As we can see, during the spread of the smallpox epidemic in Georgia in the 18th century, the way to protect oneself was to keep a distance from the place of the epidemic. The vaccine, according to Güldenstädt, was quite effective at the time.

From 20th century pandemics to the Coronavirus

In 1918 a new flu pandemic launched worldwide. The outbreak was devastating, causing millions to die, more than the World War I casualties. During new experiments upon the old virus strain, it was proved that the 1918 pandemic was caused by an influenza A – subtype H1N1 progenitor strain (G. Tsoucalas, A. Kousoulis, M. Sgantzos. The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, the Origins of the H1N1-virus Strain, a Glance in History. European Journal of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences (EJCBS). 2(4). New York. 2016, pp. 23-28).

The next major pandemic was and has remained (though under control) since then is HIV/AIDS. Most likely HIV originated in Kinshasa, Congo in the 1920s (HIV spread from chimpanzees to humans). Up until the 1980s, we do not know how many people were infected with HIV or developed AIDS. HIV was unknown and transmission was not accompanied by noticeable signs or symptoms. By 1980, HIV spread to five continents killing hundreds of thousands of people (P. Sharp, B. Hahn. Origins of HIV and the AIDS pandemic. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine. 1.  Huntington. 2011, pp. 1-21).

In the early 21st century, there were other major epidemics too such as Ebola and H1N1 paving the way for the novel coronavirus – a major epidemic that covers the entire globe affects billions of people and stagnates the world economy (many similarities with the Medieval period).

Though the above pandemics took place in different historical periods, there are many similarities in how various world regions, whether it is Georgia, Western European states or Middle East countries, responded to the outbreaks. Nowadays, in the increasingly interconnected world, it is the World Health Organization that coordinates the work on battling/preventing global or local epidemics.

Author’s note: First published in Georgia Today

Prof. Dr. Tedo Dundua is the Director of the Institute of Georgian History, Faculty of Humanities, at the Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University.

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Eastern Europe

Latvia developed new tasks for NATO soldiers

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Member of the Latvian Saemas’ national association “Everything for Latvia!” and Freedom”/LNNK Jānis Dombrava stated the need to attract NATO troops to resolve the migration crisis. This is reported by la.lv.  In his opinion, illegal migration from the Middle East to Europe may acquire the feature of an invasion. He believes that under the guise of refugees, foreign military and intelligence officers can enter the country. To his mind, in this case, the involvement of the alliance forces is more reasonable and effective than the actions of the European border agencies. Dombrava also noted that in the face of an increase in the flow of refugees, the government may even neglect the observance of human rights.

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia at Camp Ādaži consists of approximately 1512 soldiers, as well as military equipment, including tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.

Though the main task of the battlegroup in Latvia is country’s defence in case of military aggression, Latvian officials unilaterally invented new tasks for NATO soldiers So, it is absolutely clear, that Latvian politicians are ready to allow NATO troops to resolve any problem even without legal basis. Such deification and complete trust could lead to the full substitution of NATO’s real tasks in Latvia.

It should be noted that NATO troops are very far from being ideal soldiers. Their inappropriate behaviour is very often in a centre of scandals. The recent incidents prove the existing problems within NATO contingents in the Baltic States.

They are not always ready to fulfill their tasks during military exercises and training. And in this situation Latvian politicians call to use them as border guards! It is nonsense! It seems as if it is time to narrow their tasks rather than to widen them. They are just guests for some time in the territory of the Baltic States. It could happen that they would decide who will enter Latvia and who will be forbidden to cross the border!

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Eastern Europe

Changes are Possible: Which Reforms does Ukraine Need Now?

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Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

The past 16 months have tested our resilience to sudden, unexpected, and prolonged shocks. As for an individual, resilience for a country or economy is reflected in how well it has prepared for an uncertain future.

A look around the globe reveals how resilient countries have been to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have done well, others less so. The costs of having done less well are almost always borne by the poor. It is for this reason the World Bank and the international community more broadly urge—and provide support to—countries to undertake economic and structural reforms, not just for today’s challenges but tomorrow’s.

One country where the dialogue on reform has been longstanding and intense is Ukraine. This is particularly true since the economic crisis of 2014-2015 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution, when the economy collapsed, and poverty skyrocketed. Many feared the COVID pandemic would have similar effects on the country.

The good news is that thanks to a sustained, even if often difficult, movement on reforms, Ukraine is better positioned to emerge from the pandemic than many expected. Our initial projection in the World Bank, for example, was that the economy would contract by nearly 8 percent in 2020; the actual decline was half that. Gross international reserves at end-2020 were US$10 billion higher than projected. Most important, there are far fewer poor than anticipated.

Let’s consider three reform areas which have contributed to these outcomes.

First, no area of the economy contributed more to the economic crisis of 2014-2015 than the banking sector. Powerful interests captured the largest banks, distorted the flow of capital, and strangled economic activity. Fortunately, Ukraine developed a framework to resolve and recapitalize banks and strengthen supervision. Privatbank was nationalized and is now earning profits. It is now being prepared for privatization.

Second, COVID halted and threatened to reverse a five-year trend in poverty reduction. Thanks to reforms of the social safety net, Ukraine is avoiding this reversal. A few years back, the government was spending some 4.7 percent of GDP on social programs with limited poverty impact. Nearly half these resources went to an energy subsidy that expanded to cover one-in-two of the country’s households.

Since 2018, the Government has been restructuring the system by reducing broad subsidies and targeting resources to the poor. This is working. Transfers going to the poorest one-fifth of the population are rising significantly—from just 37 percent in 2019 to 50 percent this year and are projected to reach 55 percent in 2023.

Third, the health system itself. Ukrainians live a decade less than their EU neighbors. Basic epidemiological vulnerabilities are exacerbated by a health delivery system centered around outdated hospitals and an excessive reliance on out-of-pocket spending. In 2017, Ukraine passed a landmark health financing law defining a package of primary care for all Ukrainians, free-of-charge. The law is transforming Ukraine’s constitutional commitment to free health care from an aspiration into specific critical services that are actually being delivered.

The performance of these sectors, which were on the “front line” during COVID, demonstrate the payoff of reforms. The job now is to tackle the outstanding challenges.

The first is to reduce the reach of the public sector in the economy. Ukraine has some 3,500 companies owned by the state—most of them loss-making—in sectors from machine building to hotels. Ukraine needs far fewer SOEs. Those that remain must be better managed.

Ukraine has demonstrated that progress can be made in this area. The first round of corporate governance reforms has been successfully implemented at state-owned banks. Naftogaz was unbundled in 2020. The electricity sector too is being gradually liberalized. Tariffs have increased and reforms are expected to support investment in aging electricity-producing and transmitting infrastructure. Investments in renewable energy are also surging.

But there are developments of concern, including a recent removal of the CEO of an SOE which raised concerns among Ukraine’s friends eager to see management independence of these enterprises. Management functions of SOE supervisory boards and their members need to remain free of interference.

The second challenge is to strengthen the rule of law. Over recent years, the country has established—and has committed to protect—new institutions to combat corruption. These need to be allowed to function professionally and independently. And they need to be supported by a judicial system defined by integrity and transparency. The move to re-establish an independent High Qualification Council is a welcome step in this direction.

Finally, we know change is possible because after nearly twenty years, Ukraine on July first opened its agricultural land market. Farmers are now free to sell their land which will help unleash the country’s greatest potential source of economic growth and employment.

Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to undertake tough reforms and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the real-life benefits of these reforms. The World Bank looks forward to providing continued assistance as the country takes on new challenges on the way to closer European integration.

This article was first published in European Pravda via World Bank

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Eastern Europe

Liberal Development at Stake as LGBT+ Flags Burn in Georgia

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Photo: Protesters hold a banner depicting U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan during a rally against Pride Week in Tbilisi, Georgia July 1, 2021. Credit: REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze

Protests against Georgia’s LGBT+ Pride parade turned ugly in Tbilisi on July 5 when members of the community were hunted down and attacked, around 50 journalists beaten up and the offices of various organizations vandalized. Tensions continued the following day, despite a heavy police presence.

On the face of it, the Georgian state condemned the violence. President Salome Zourabichvili was among the first with a clear statement supporting freedom of expression, members of parliament did likewise and the Ministry of Internal Affairs condemned any form of violence.

But behind the scenes, another less tolerant message had been spread before the attacks. Anxiety about this year’s events had been rising as a result of statements by the government and clergy. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili suggested the march “poses a threat of civil strife.” The Georgian Orthodox Church meanwhile condemned the event, saying it, “contains signs of provocation, conflicts with socially recognized moral norms and aims to legalize grave sin.”

For many, these statements signified tacit approval for the abuse of peaceful demonstrators. Meanwhile, the near-complete absence of security at the outset of the five-day event was all too obvious in Tbilisi’s streets and caused a public outcry. Many alleged the government was less focused on public safety than on upcoming elections where will need support from socially conservative voters and the powerful clergy, in a country where more than 80% of the population is tied to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

The violence brought a joint statement of condemnation from Western embassies. “Violence is simply unacceptable and cannot be excused,” it said. The Pride event was not the first and had previously been used by anti-gay groups. Violence was widespread in 2013 — and the reality of attacks against sexual minorities in Georgia remains ever-present.

In a socially conservative country such as Georgia, antagonism to all things liberal can run deep. Resistance to non-traditional sexual and religious mores divides society. This in turn causes political tension and polarization and can drown out discussion of other problems the country is marred in. It very obviously damages the country’s reputation abroad, where the treatment of minorities is considered a key marker of democratic progress and readiness for further involvement in European institutions.

That is why this violence should also be seen from a broader perspective. It is a challenge to liberal ideas and ultimately to the liberal world order.

A country can be democratic, have a multiplicity of parties, active election campaigns, and other features characteristic of rule by popular consent. But democracies can also be ruled by illiberal methods, used for the preservation of political power, the denigration of opposing political forces, and most of all the use of religious and nationalist sentiments to raise or lower tensions.

It happens across Eurasia, and Georgia is no exception. These are hybrid democracies with nominally democratic rule. Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and others have increasingly more in common, despite geographic distance and cultural differences.

Hungary too has been treading this path. Its recent law banning the supposed propagation of LGBT+ materials in schools must be repealed, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on July 7. “This legislation uses the protection of children . . . to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation . . . It is a disgrace,” she said.

One of the defining features of illiberalism is agility in appropriating ideas on state governance and molding them to the illiberal agenda.

It is true that a mere 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union is not enough to have built a truly liberal democratic state. Generations born and raised in the Soviet period or in the troubled 1990s still dominate the political landscape. This means that a different worldview still prevails. It favors democratic development but is also violently nationalistic in opposing liberal state-building.

Georgia’s growing illiberalism has to be understood in the context of the Russian gravitational pull. Blaming all the internal problems of Russia’s neighbors has become mainstream thinking among opposition politicians, NGOs, and sometimes even government figures. Exaggeration is commonplace, but when looking at the illiberal challenge from a long-term perspective, it becomes clear where Russia has succeeded in its illiberal goals. It is determined to stop Georgia from joining NATO and the EU. Partly as a result, the process drags on and this causes friction across society. Belief in the ultimate success of the liberal agenda is meanwhile undermined and alternatives are sought. Hybrid illiberal governments are the most plausible development. The next stage could well be a total abandonment of Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Indeed what seemed irrevocable now seems probable, if not real. Pushback against Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice is growing stronger. Protesters in front of the parliament in central Tbilisi violently brought tore the EU flag. Twice.

The message of anti-liberal groups has also been evolving. There has been significant growth in their messaging. The anti-pride sentiment is evolving into a wider resistance to the Western way of life and Georgia’s Western foreign policy path, perhaps because it is easily attacked and misrepresented.

To deal with this, Western support is important, but much depends on Georgian governments and the population at large. A pushback against radicalism and anti-liberalism should come in the guise of time and resources for the development of stronger and currently faltering institutions. Urgency in addressing these problems has never been higher — internal and foreign challenges converge and present a fundamental challenge to what Georgia has been pursuing since the days of Eduard Shevardnadze – the Western path to development.

Author’s note: first published at cepa

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