Demarcating a virus: conversations between neighbors
In the morning, Misha goes out to smoke on the balcony. There’s a long line by the grocery store under the building. He’s out of cigarettes but still doesn’t take his place in a queue. This line is much more organized than the one he remembers in his childhood, but still… you know, laziness…
Lately, everything reminds him of his childhood: the state of emergency, long lines by the grocery stores, and people locked in their homes in Tbilisi. To avoid this reality, he uses Glovo to get cigarettes. Delivery service is the one thing that makes this time different from the past. The delivery boy leaves the plastic bag by the wall. Misha closes the door silently.
A state of emergency was declared in Georgia on March 21, five days later than in Armenia. Azerbaijan was the last region to activate the restrictions imposed by the virus. But instead of a regular state of emergency, the government declared a special regime starting March 24.
Elshane was visiting her sister the day before. She would stay until the evening, as she did before, but she suspected the virus everywhere. So she got up and left after an hour. She bought 300 kilograms of flour and stored it in the stockroom. She hasn’t even touched it yet and she still adds 10 kilograms every four days.
The fear of being left without bread flour dates back to the time when Azerbaijanis, like Georgians, developed the habit of being in crisis. The pandemic has sparked fears of the 1990’s in the post-Soviet people, and they started stocking up on flour and pasta instead of toilet paper. Even the solar panels have been sold in Georgia. It seems some people were afraid to return to the times of darkness.
Since the declaration of the state of emergency, about thirty people from Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia have spoken to us from their homes.
It’s a perfect time for some people to return to their best selves, to think, and to reassess some values, while little has changed for others.
Their homes, where they spent most of the two-month lockdown, are located far from each other, in different cities and countries. However, these daily observations and discoveries are more like a story experienced in one big house, from which one can see the present and future silhouettes of the three neighboring countries of the South Caucasus.
Nino brought homemade food and groceries to her eldest daughter, who was in self-isolation in her old apartment after arriving from Germany. Nino didn't even try to enter the house. She left the food on the balcony and left. It was then that she first realized her lifestyle had changed, but she had no idea how long it would last.
All members of her family were at home, acting as if they had just discovered the house. So, it was the best time to share the household chores with them. She had never had such control of time before! She felt like she was sitting in a parked vehicle and was calmly waiting for it to start.
In the evenings her husband would tell her how many new cases had been announced in the country and the world, how many had died, survived and recovered, what symptoms they had, and what scientists said. She purposefully avoided reports on the statistics.
Azerbaijan reported that another 105 people (5.04.2020) had been infected with the coronavirus, with the news reports saying the country was heading for a peak in the number of infected people. Elshane is sitting in front of the TV in the kitchen, with the biscuits on the table. She baked them last week as she was planning to visit her newlywed daughter. She is under pressure, but she still can't turn off the TV. She is shivering with fear. Her daughter-in-law warns her that worrying can kill her earlier than the coronavirus.
It’s late afternoon and Elshane’s son is still asleep. He’ll probably wake up at 10:00 PM, sit down at the computer and play his video games until 6:00-7:00 AM. His laughing and shouting will wake her up several times at night.
Breakfast is no longer a thing in this family, as all four children wake up and eat at different times, and Elshane's routine is tied to them. She tries to have as little contact as possible with her husband, who is at home all day long. She is tired of being with him. When she’s left alone, she calls her relatives and friends and asks the same question every single day: “How are you?”.
It’s weird but now that every member of the family is at home, it feels even more lonely. When all this is over, she vows to take better care of herself.
Along with the latest number of confirmed infections, Nino learns from her husband that it’s forbidden to drive in the city. As soon as she finds out that the clergy will not be affected by the ban, she decides to walk to the church to attend Easter liturgy, which will not be cancelled.
“Now I know we are on the right track. I’m proud that in the Orthodox world, our country was the only one to meet Easter with open temples. There are so many holy places in Italy, but the first thing they did was close the temples for people to pray, which I believe could’ve been a savior for them.”
In the afternoon, Misha called the manager and asked for a ten-day vacation. They had to meet a client the day quarantine was declared. The client was the director of a fish company and they were to offer him an idea for advertising. So, this meeting was the first thing he remembered when he thought about the lockdown. It was not suspended, but then, as he says, not only the shooting of the advertisement was postponed, but the life itself was put on pause.
In the room, his wife is sitting at the computer, working remotely. In the living room, his second-grade son has an online lesson. The child suddenly punches the screen and starts crying. Misha can’t calm him down, so he finally turns off the computer and the teacher's image disappears from the screen.
One year ago, most teachers in Georgia were registered to use the Microsoft Office 365 program. Giorgi is a teacher of Georgian language and literature in Marneuli. He has just finished his lesson for the 11th graders and is having a break. He glances at his wife, who just returned from the store, and starts to wonder: “Did she bring anything else with the bread and water? Did she wash her hands? Did she change clothes or did she forget? How many handles did she touch?”
Then he realizes how pathetic his thoughts are and returns to Microsoft. There had been doubts about how useful the program training had been initially.
"One tool in the education system appeared to be a useless item in the family. In this reality, this most neglected object suddenly turned out to be the most necessary thing. That's what happened in the educational system.”
“Technology is the only thing that doesn’t let us stop completely.”
“The strange thing is that in the age of technology, the world is using the most primitive method to stop the pandemic – absolute isolation, though this pandemic is neither the first nor the last. Millions of people have been killed by the Black Death in Europe.”
Araz is Giorgi’s colleague from Azerbaijan. In general he thinks that he has benefited from these strange times.
He lives alone in Baku and continues to write his research at home. It's a good thing that nothing distracts him except a few lessons a week in biology. Now he’s patiently waiting for the time when the factories will start running at double capacity and will probably double the pollution of the environment. He is also waiting for the people to get tired of the escalating solidarity in Azerbaijan; in his opinion, the only thing that will unite the people, in the long run, is to unite against the economic system that oppresses them.
“I imagined what would happen if Armenia and Azerbaijan were united in the face of a common threat.”
“Armenia and Georgia, even though they do not have any conflict with one another, remain alienated from each other.”
Bakhtiyar won’t be able to visit the regions of Azerbaijan for a long time. The peace movement depends on the communal meetings, but now he spends 12 hours a day in front of the computer. Activism has taken on an online dimension and it works fine, actually.
Aghasi, a cultural anthropologist from Armenia, was in the audience when the country's health minister questioned if the official number of infections in neighboring Georgia were correct.
Aghasi had been waiting for the two countries to cooperate, to work together to help their nations during the crisis.
“I think the reason is authoritarianism. And I don’t mean just the political authoritarianism, but also the authoritarianism, which we express in social coexistence and relationships. In these conditions, it's almost impossible to think of a more creative way of dealing with relationships, or at least to join the forces in times of danger, This is very bad, because it restrains people and societies from communicating with each other on the principle of creativity and vica versa, it sets a ground for exploitation, for mastering one another,”Says Aghasi Tadevosyan.
As the number of cases steadily rose in Armenia, however, Georgia offered to send 10,000 tests and other assistance.
In the morning, Lilit usually checks her work email to see if there are new results for the latest round of samples. Polyclinic is located in the Armenian capital Yerevan, in the district center of Erebuni and has been receiving patients with symptoms of the virus from the very beginning. Lilith gathers strength, prepares herself, and goes to the patients, knowing her lines: “The virus is not the verdict, and thousands of people have already recovered from this disease.”
However, Lilith says it’s easier said than convincing the ones who still believe that hundreds of infected patients are lying and the state has paid them to pretend. They think that the virus has not spread to Armenia, and it was invented.
Arpy, an Armenian sociologist believes that these doubts, irrational thinking and conspiracy theories are how people in the South Caucasus are responding to the crisis; it’s a reflex people use to try to orient themselves in these difficult and uncertain times.
"Usually, we look very closely at ourselves, as if we are the only ones in the whole world and there are no other regions or neighborhoods except us. There is only Armenia and it can’t be threatened by the outside world and its dangers. This situation has made the Armenian society think that we are also a part of this great world, and yes – the virus from one Chinese suburb has reached us.”
In April, Lilit received a bonus. Considering the dollar exchange rate, it was 62 dollars and 29 cents – three times less than 186 dollars which is the average salary of nurses in public clinics of Armenia. She doesn't know what will happen next month.
“There is no time to talk about the salary. Now I have to work full time, including weekends.
“In the morning, one of my managers picks me up and takes me to work. I silently sit in the back. We rarely talk, and I can’t wait until these rides are over and I’m able to take my bus again.”
Nona has been a nurse for more than 30 years. She’s recently moved to a private clinic; her salary was not paid on time in April and the management has already warned her that the salary of these months will be halved. The reason is that all the businesses of the founders have stopped working and the clinic itself can’t provide enough income to maintain the salaries of the staff. They are not yet buying the equipment, hoping they won't have to receive the infected patients. At the same time, according to hospital’s guidelines, they should receive patients who have a fever and if one of them happens to be Covid positive, nurses and doctors will be at risk.
Nona now sees that private clinics are trying to avoid getting Covid patients, as that would force the clinic to close and the government would force the clinic to pay the staff more and provide them with food, transportation, and equipment - all extra expenses.
“It’s now clear that we should not sell so many hospitals. One day you may not be able to go to the clinic of your choice, where you think you’ll be treated by better-qualified staff and caring nurses. One day you may not be able to choose the clinic, just like many people in this country, and you will have to entrust your health to the medical staff whose salary is just 400 or 500 GEL in a month and who you consider to be less qualified.”
“There are only three intensive care doctors in Fuzuli, a few kilometers from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, and I am one of them, but the chief doctor chose a sofa over me."
A taxi travels 300 kilometers from Fuzuli district to Baku before Lala arrives home at night.
People are dying in Azerbaijan and all over the world, many people are left without jobs, and everything has turned upside down. In these circumstances, it’s kind of awkward to remember the incident she had with the chief doctor a few hours ago. Her stubbornness seemed too much – she could’ve been more patient, she could’ve survived without a new sofa in order to be able to work for the people she knew so well and loved.
After all, she has returned to Fuzuli Hospital intending to treat people during the most difficult times.
Lala, a young intensive care physician, had to travel several hours from her home in Baku every week to work the night shift at the clinic. The chief doctor had decided to move her sofa to the hall and she had to spend the night with just one bed in the room.
“I had to sit and eat in one bed. So I asked the doctor to return my sofa. He refused and added that if I didn’t like his decision, I could just leave. So, I left.”
Lala has returned to her rented apartment. Her husband's salary is already late, and he may not get paid next month. So, she is afraid she may be left without any income. She still sent her CV to the Association for the Management of Medical Territorial Units of Azerbaijan and indicated that she is ready to volunteer to treat infected patients.
“The migrant tragedy is getting bigger. It made me think about what I should do in the upcoming years.”
“ I think we’re wrong to believe this is the worst thing that could happen to us.”
“People need to find a solution that does not cause the conflict between our security, humanism, and freedom."
For the last 10 years, Lela's life has been an endless movement in European cities. Her social ties extend from Georgia to Germany, and from Germany to Hungary, from one institution to another, because this is what is required to pursue an academic career. While on one hand, it is an opportunity, and on the other hand, it has become a problem and a limitation.
" I was tired but, at the same time, I knew that maintaining my stable life was based on this mobility. When I’m here, I have the peace of mind that if my mother and father get ill tomorrow, I can buy a plane ticket and fly to Georgia.”
But Corona proved that her assumption, which made her multinational life possible, turned out to be very fragile. Because there is a great chance that this mobility will collapse in the face of various crises. This is accompanied by a second kind of anxiety. If she leaves, she doesn’t know what life in Georgia will be like for her.
As a psychologist, Sona could of course use new job opportunities, her social network is filled with online therapy sessions, where her colleagues are meeting their patients on Facebook in real-time, advising on how to avoid stress, boredom, family conflicts, and how to become more productive. Sona has refused to be a part of this marathon of stress management. Lately she is less optimistic about the future and, unlike people who dramatized the situation during the lockdown, Sona tries to prepare for the worst scenario, which she believes is very much likely to happen, as countries like ours choose a survival mode, even at the expense of restricting freedom.
“I think that more and more countries in the world will follow this strategy, which may be followed by many military decisions in the future.”
That possibility alarms Aghasi, the cultural anthropologist:
“You know what worries me the most? The fact that people are ready to hand over their freedom for their safety. In my opinion, it is a test of humanity to solve this problem as cleverly as possible.”
“But what if the future we should expect is just the past wrapped up as a post-pandemic future by governments?”
"For states and corporations to cope with the economic costs caused by Corona, we will be doubly offered to go here and there, to be good tourists, and to fly as much as possible. We will be offered better conditions and cheaper prices to be even better ‘consumers.’ My first fear is that the establishments will do everything to get us back to ‘normal.’ And in the process, our minds can even forget what this crisis had to teach us."
Interviews conducted by
Durna Safarova, Media Manager at Chai Khana in Azerbaijan
Sona Simonyan, Media Manager at Chai Khana in Armenia
Rusan Gishyan , Media Manager at Chai Khana in Armenia
Misha Bakhsoliani, script writer
Elshane Rahimova, housewife
Nino Kvanchiani, housewife
Giorgi Chauchidze, teacher
Araz Zeyniyev, teacher
Bakhtiyar Aslanov, peace activist
Aghasi Tadevosyan, PhD in Cultural Anthropology
Arpy Manusyan, sociologist
Lilit Tovmasyan, nurse
Nona Zandarashvili, nurse
Lala Musayeva, resuscitator
Sona Manusyan, psychologist
Lela Rekhviashvili, researcher