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Coronavirus Pandemic in the Occupied Regions


Manana Vardiashvili

The occupied Akhalgori district has been closed since September 4, 2019, and de facto president Anatoly Bibilov has no plans to change the reality until the Chorchana-Tsnelisi crisis is resolved. In Akhalgori, the isolated population is living under a humanitarian crisis. As local residents say, prices for food and medicines have tripled and many medicines are not even available in drug stores. The local residents do not receive qualified medical care because they do not have doctors of all profiles in Akhalgori Hospital. The number of people not receiving qualified medical care in time due to isolation and dying increases every month. 

Among them was the doctor of Akhalgori Hospital, a well-known surgeon Onise Gatenashvili. He was infected with the coronavirus. On November 8, 2020, his condition worsened. The family requested to transfer him to Tbilisi. However, the spouse of Gatenashvili received a permission to take the ailing husband to the Georgian-controlled territory only on the 8th day after the application.

The heart of the doctor in critical condition has stopped in an ambulance on November 14 while he was being transported from Tskhinvali to the Georgian-controlled territory for treatment. 
According to the Central Government of Georgia, 16 people have died in the occupied town over the past year due to lack of access to health care.

Tamar Mearakishvili, a civil activist living in Akhalgori, told HRC that the data provided by Georgian government was inaccurate. 

"I make notes of all such cases from 2019 onwards. Due to the fact that Tskhinvali did not allow the transfer of patients to the Georgian-controlled territory in time, 40 people have died. "The situation worsened especially in November, when the coronavirus spread in Akhalgori," Mearakishvili said and ads from the end of December the situation in the occupied town improved in this regard. "Our struggle as local inhabitants has yielded results. Now, if there is a medical report stating that the patient needs to be transported to Tbilisi, the transportation permit would not be delayed. Akhalgori was left by the residents. According to the 2002 census, there were 7,650 people living in Akhalgori district. There were about 1,500 people left here before the road was closed. While at the time being the number of inhabitants has almost halved. In order not to make the small town completely empty, Tskhinvali had to make concessions. However, this does not mean that there are no problems now in whole region of Tskhinvali. I know from the residents of Perevi that it is still very difficult to get a permit to move to Tbilisi. "

The de facto Ministry of Foreign Affairs denies reports that the population is leaving the village en masse due to life-threatening conditions, however, Tskhinvali authorities do confirm that 50 persons used the program of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) envisaging reconciliation of families and moved to the territory controlled by Georgia to live with their relatives.  

According to the Information by the State Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, since the outbreak of the new coronavirus pandemic on January 1, 2021, more than 250 individuals infected with the covid virus have left the de facto Republic of Abkhazia for treatment in the Georgian-controlled territory, and up to 900 patients have benefited from the state program of referral service for free health care in the Georgian controlled area.

“Unfortunately, in response to the pandemic, we have not been able to provide similar assistance to  Tskhinvali region due to the deconstructive  approach by the occupation regime," said Tea Akhvlediani, State Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality. 

Moreover, the situation is difficult also in Abkhazia, where about 200,000 people reside. According to the Information by de facto Ministry of Health, since the outbreak of the pandemic, 12,700 cases of coronavirus infections have been reported there, 195 patients have died and 12,017 have recovered. 

There is a severe shortage of medical staff in Abkhazia now. At Gudauta Hospital, where the patients infected with covid virus are being treated, the de facto deputy Minister of Health, Alkha Konjaria, went on duty as a doctor. 

Mostly the population residing in Gali moves to the territory controlled by Georgia. Gali residents are tested on the spot in Saberio. Test samples are sent to the laboratory of Zugdidi Hospital. In case of a positive answer, the patients will be transferred to the Georgian controlled territory. The patients are brought to the Enguri Bridge by a first aid team of the de facto Republic, and on the other side of the 800-meter long Enguri Bridge, where the Georgian police are stationed, an ambulance sent by the Ministry of Health of Georgia is waiting for the patients.  

Along with ethnic Georgians, ethnic Abkhazians also come to the Georgian-controlled territory for treatment. Alu Gamakharia, director of the association Peaceful and Business Caucasus , says that the association only helps people who do not have Georgian citizenship: "Our association has moved more than 70 people infected with coronavirus to Tbilisi or other hospitals in Georgia for treatment. Two of them died. Sokhumi does not have a proper logistics and they are short of qualified doctors. Some Abkhazians go to Sochi for treatment or to Moscow. Traveling to Moscow and getting treatment is quite expensive. While here, treatment is free for them. They are sure that they will receive good quality medical services in Georgia. After moving here and receiving treatment, they become more sympathetic to Georgians and the Georgian State. The problem is that many official agencies are involved in the negotiation process and the issuance of permits is sometimes very time consuming. There were times when we waited for a response for more than a week. Such delays can sometimes cost lives.”

The respondent, whose identity we would do not reveal at his will, tells us about the difficult situation in Abkhazia. He lives in Gali and is well acquainted with the situation at Saberio Hospital. He says that the situation there is very difficult: There is poor logistics making it difficult for the medical staff employed to diagnosticate. The hospital has been asking for an X-ray machine for several years, but in vain. They did not have a special gears and disposable gloves, which is why doctors worked with patients with bare hands while carrying out required smearing for the PSR test, putting their own health at risk. In addition, they receive 3 times less salary than their colleagues employed in clinics in the Georgian controlled territory. 

According to our respondent, during the pandemic, only the evacuation of the individuals infected with covid virus was facilitated, and this was due to the fact that the de facto authorities did not have the resources to receive the population from Gali in the Covid-centers of Gudauta and Sokhumi. Even the chronically ill and those with oncopathology for whom treatment on this side of Enguri is of great significance have been left without planned medical care. 

The chief doctor of Gali Hospital, who is ethnic Abkhazian, does not allow ethnic Georgians living in Gali to cross into Georgian-controlled territory for planned medical services and directs them to Sukhumi, where Gali residents have to pay a very high price for very poor quality medical services. 

Human Rights Center is implementing the project "Free Legal Advocacy and Human Rights Monitoring after the Coronavirus Pandemic" with the assistance of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Georgia.

The aim of the project is to identify the possible violations of human rights  during the state of emergency announced  for the prevention of the spread of the coronavirus and in the post-pandemic period and to raise awareness about the possible violations in Tbilisi and five regions of Georgia: Shida Kartli, Kakheti, Kvemo Kartli, Imereti and in Samegrelo.

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