Life after lockdown in Marneuli

Author: Klaudia Kosicinska

When the global pandemic hit Georgia, one of the most affected areas was Marneuli Municipality, a region close to both the Armenian and Azerbaijani borders.

After several residents tested positive for Covid-19, over 137,000 people—the population of the municipality - were subjected to some of the strictest quarantine measures in the country for 56 days.

Most of the restrictions mirrored the quarantine measures enforced elsewhere in Georgia:  all non-essential businesses were closed, and people could not leave their communities. Limitations on travel made working in the fields, a core part of the economy, difficult. In addition, the ban on large-scale events, like weddings and funerals, made it impossible for locals to hold their traditional celebrations.

But as the first part of the country to experience total lockdown, the situation in Marneuli district was unique in many ways, and the experience highlighted several long-standing issues facing the local population.

The municipality is predominantly populated by ethnic Azerbaijani and Armenian citizens, and the fact that this region was the first to be hard hit by the virus fed a wave of anti-minority hate speech on social media.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that many local residents do not speak Georgian, the state language. While some effort was made to inform residents in Azerbaijani and Armenian, in reality many residents depended on Azerbaijani, Armenian and Russian media outlets for news, and missed reports and useful information that affected them directly.

Restrictions on movement also made it difficult for Marneuli residents to sell their produce in the capital Tbilisi and other areas, which prompted some small protests.
I have spent time in villages in the municipality every month since 2018 as part of my PhD research on mobility and translocal practices of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Marneuli. The weeks of quarantine between March and June were the first time I was not able to visit the area. Once restrictions were lifted, I returned to speak with residents in several villages—including Dashtapa, Shulaveri and Zemo Sarali—to learn how the strict lockdown affected them.

People are back to work in nearly all sectors of the economy in Marneuli. For 56 days, the municipality was in lockdown due to an outbreak of Covid-19.  Residents of the municipality could not travel outside their communities during the period. Elmira, 50, a resident of Dashtapa (population 1,092), recalled the quarantine as a big challenge – they could not go out on the street, couldn’t visit each other, even though there was no virus in the village. Elmira, an ethnic Armenian, said her ethnic Azerbaijani neighbors were always willing to help when she needed something.

Locals struggled during the lockdown; businesses like outdoor tea houses were closed and it was difficult to carry out trade or even work in the fields. People had to find different ways to make ends meet, like trading used clothes or sharing food from their gardens, to get through the hard time.

 “When people first heard about it, there was a lot of concern about the coronavirus because people assumed that it’s just a game or fake. When the first case was confirmed in Georgia, panic started and my town was categorized as a red zone,” noted Sadiq, 23. 

“It was a long lockdown, that's why some people lost their jobs across the whole country… People suffered a long time because of coronavirus. Fortunately our medical system was very good and our doctors are real heroes because they saved a lot of lives.”

Mamuka, 17 is from Mareti, a settlement in Shulaveri (population 1,551). He and his entire family were diagnosed with Covid-19. They were taken to a hospital in Tbilisi, where they spent 15 days and then spent two weeks in self-isolation at home. Mamuka said he never felt any animosity from his neighbors. Today he has recovered and has just finished his exams for university. He wants to study history or business administration in Tbilisi.

Makho, 24, is an ethnic Georgian from Tbilisi who has been staying with his grandmother in Mareti. He works as an actor in Tbilisi - the premiers of his latest films had to be postponed due to the pandemic. But he said life continued in the village despite the lockdown. For example, his neighbors continued working in the fields.

Misir, 58, lives in Shulaveri. His wife and son live in Russia. He notes that despite the closed borders, there is still a chance for him to find work in the area. “Currently I paint houses and do construction and renovations in my neighborhood. It is easy for me to find work here. I am satisfied with my life.”

Children in the municipality, and around the country, had to attend school online after schools were closed to prevent the spread of the virus. The government arranged for classes over Microsoft Teams, and televised lessons in Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian on the state broadcaster. However, some local residents, especially ethnic Azerbaijanis, who usually watch television broadcasts from Azerbaijan, did not know about these programs. In addition, due to very limited access to the internet and technical problems, a lot of children only limited lessons or no classes at all after schools closed in March.

A library in Marneuli is still closed despite the fact that most restrictions have been lifted. 

Ilham, 42, has served on the Marneuli municipal council since 2017. “We haven’t had any new cases for two months… Tourism will come back to Georgia next year and then we will be considered a green zone. We were a red zone, now we will be a green one.” 

While some locals still doubt the virus exists, others say they are grateful for the steps the government took to contain the spread of Covid-19.  “We should get used to living with this virus, they say it is not going anywhere. And it is good that they’ve closed the borders, because if they had not done that, no one would be left alive,” noted Elmira. She added that basic hygiene is a problem in her village: there were times during the lockdown that they did not have running water.  “We often don’t have water here, so how do you imagine we could wash our hands 30 times a day?”




Chai-khana Survay