by Miceál O’Hurley
DUBLIN – In December, 2019 news emerged of a novel strain of a coronavirus with an alarming infection rate. To date, some 609,279 people worldwide have reportedly died because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic’s toll throughout the world has been devastating, wrecking economies, stressing health care systems and causing countries around the world to impose travel bans and restrictions to thwart the spread of the virus. Two months ago Ireland lifted many of the restrictions previously imposed to help contain the Covid-19 pandemic but has this week imposed new ones and delayed the opening of some business out of abundant caution. All this gives us pause to reflect upon the work of diplomacy in action and the critical role played by the Diplomatic Corps in continuing to serve people during this crisis.
I am continuing to profile diplomatic missions in Ireland to provide an insight into how diplomacy has been conducted during these trying circumstances and provide some insight into the challenges that may lie ahead. In this interview, the Georgian Ambassador, His Excellency Mr. George Zurabashvili, was kind enough to consent to an interview with Diplomacy in Ireland – The European Diplomat.
Educated as a linguist achieving a Candidate of Sciences in Linguistics (equivalent of Ph. D. degree) from Tbilisi State University, Mr. George Zurabashvili entered the diplomatic service in 1992. Beyond his graduate studies, he continued his professional education in diplomacy and international relations at institutions as distinguished as Hacetepe University Foreign Policy Institute (Ankara, Turkey), participated in the International Visitors Program, United States Information Agency (USIA) and also attended the School of International and Public Affairs, Colombia University (New York, USA). Mr. Zurabashvili previously served as the Director of the Department of Diplomatic Protocol as well as being Chief of the State Chancellery of the Government of Georgia. From 2012-2013 he distinguished himself as the Chief Executive Officer of the Millennium Challenge Account Georgia prior to taking up his posting as Charge d’Affaires for the Embassy of Georgia to Ireland. Mr. Zurabashvili presented his credentials to President Michael D. Higgins as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Georgia to Ireland in August 2014. In October 2019 His Excellency Mr. George Zurabashvili was elevated to the diplomatic rank of Ambassador by President of Georgia, Mrs. Salome Zourabichvili.
Your Excellency, I appreciate you taking a moment to discuss the events of recent months and the Covid-19 pandemic with me and how it has impacted the Georgian Mission to Ireland of late.
What did you find to be the greatest challenge that emerged for your Mission during the Covid-19 pandemic?
The major challenges any society faces during pandemic are increased stress and global panic related to the outbreak. Numerous Georgian nationals residing in Ireland were affected heavily by this crisis, many of those addressing us for assistance. Some of them were tenants who had difficulty in paying rent, some of them when accessing various essential services such as medical and social due to language barriers and the Embassy provided immediate assistance.
Supporting those in need in how to manage stress and fear indeed was the biggest challenge. It involved proper management of dedicated hotline that significantly contributed in reducing the negative impact of the pandemic on the Georgian nationals living in Ireland. In line with Government recommendations we have introduced a range of measures in the Embassy grounds on social distancing, temperature control, sanitizing and disinfecting to protect our citizens and staff which certainly remains of the utmost importance.
What was Georgia’s experience with repatriation of citizens and assisting others stranded abroad during the crisis?
Embassies of Georgia worldwide were focused on helping our citizens – students, tourists and other people stranded abroad to return to Georgia, or assist them in any other way. The Government of Georgia has successfully organised the repatriation of more than 12,000 citizens from various parts of the globe to Georgia by organising more than 100 charter flights. All these flights operated according to the WHO regulations.
Civil protection assistance is vital for people in such emergency conditions and therefore all of Georgia’s diplomatic missions were engaged in the repatriation process. Unfortunately, it was not feasible to organize a charter from Dublin due to small number of Georgians living in Ireland, and therefore it was extremely difficult to find the alternative routes for repatriation in the times of total shutdown of the airports, restricted and frequently cancelled flights.
That must have presented a significant challenges. Please tell me, with a general prohibition on travel and restricted visits to Embassies, what are some of the ways your Mission adapted to meet the needs of people asking for services?
During the lockdown Georgian Embassy staff were working from home, however, occasionally we had to attend the Embassy office to perform necessary duties. We had to issue emergency travel documents for the Georgian citizens willing to return to Georgia and helped them in transportation from various cities to the airports.
In addition, various recommendations and protocols related to COVID-19 were developed, video lectures launched and educational materials circulated including through social media. It was crucially important to maintain close contact with those in need of help. We’ve been in contact with people who had virus symptoms but were not hospitalised and stayed in self-isolation.
Furthermore, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia organised series of online video consultations with Georgian doctors, pediatricians, immunologists and psychologists for the Georgian citizens living abroad, during which Georgians had an opportunity to get up-to-date information and ask questions regarding Covid-19 symptoms, safety measures and many more in their native language.
What was the Georgian experience with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during the pandemic so far?
Personal Protection Equipment had been in high demand in the first weeks of the pandemic. About 10 textile companies in Georgia have started production of face masks in the middle of pandemic and the Government distributed locally made face masks to people for free. Georgian companies produced masks using advanced technologies in line with EU standards and I am delighted to mention that today Georgian company New Technology Impex (email@example.com) offers highest quality facemasks to the European market.
To help fight the coronavirus Georgian Government has sent medical personnel and supplies to badly affected neighbor Armenia. All diplomatic missions worldwide also received COVID-19 test kits from the Georgian Government for staff use, if needed.
There are accounts of diplomats, their spouses or staff serving around the world who fell victim to Covid-19 in the service of their countries. Did your Mission or country experience any losses or illnesses in your diplomatic community during the Covid-19 pandemic to date? If so, is there someone you would like to remember or mention?
Fortunately, Georgian missions abroad, staff members and families are not among the victims to Covid -19. Here I would like to regrettably mention the sudden death of our colleague, the Ambassador of Argentina to Ireland, Her Excellency Laura Bernal, a highly respected diplomat and a wonderful person.
What are some lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic so far that you think will have an impact on how diplomacy is conducted in the future?
Acknowledging the fact that diplomacy is another victim of the virus, my personal opinion is that very soon, diplomatic relations will return and be the same as it was before. Diplomacy is all about relations and I would not agree that virtual communications can replace face to face contacts that develop personal touches and trust among people. Although on the other hand, digital diplomacy has proven to be effective, as it gives great possibility to keep the contact and communicate efficiently, saving time and resources. Another benefit is that it can facilitate meeting of many people in multiple locations at the same time with minimal effort. I think after the pandemic we will be using more technology in everyday life and this will become new normal, although I consider face-to-face meetings are irreplaceable and look forward to meeting with my colleagues in person.
Are there any changes in the way you will provide Consular services for the foreseeable future?
Georgia introduced well developed technologies to its citizens many years ago offering majority online services to Georgian citizens for their convenience. We use unique blockchain technologies for data processing and protection. Online facilities provided by the Public Service Development Agency of Georgia enables Georgian citizens to apply for various services remotely, and we recommend our citizens to use online or postal services when possible to avoid unnecessary travel. In case they have to attend the Embassy premises, we are best equipped with all necessary tools to ensure the safety of our staff and customers.
What are the plans for your country to move towards a ‘normalisation’ of travel and tourism?
Georgia is enjoying the distinction of being included in a list of 15 non-EU states the European Union considers absolutely safe ̶ a green zone for which to open its borders. The Georgian Government responded swiftly to the virus threat as soon as the first case was confirmed, taking most effective measures by closing its borders quite at the early stage, launching an information campaign and regular updates. Our country’s top immunologists and infectionists as well as Georgia’s National Centre for Disease Control and Public Health have led the country’s fight against the pandemic and have become widely respected for their decision-making. The three top medical officers were nicknamed as “Three Musketeers’’ by the BBC report Coronavirus: How ‘three musketeers’ helped Georgia fight virus.
These actions and many more have sparked strong support from the Georgian society who has cared responsively and contributed to the successful fight against the pandemic. Fewer than 900 cases of Covid-19 have been registered and 15 people have died out of a population of 3.8 million. Georgia has joined several other European countries in re-opening after months of lockdown, introducing strict safety measures in compliance with international safety standards and offering safe environment and Corona-free tourist zones at the seaside or in the high mountains.
In September, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) will convene a Ministerial session in Tbilisi on “Future Prospects for the Tourism Industry” and many innovative ideas about tourism promotion will be discussed.
Any pandemic is a tragedy. But even in such situations there are always stories that inspire. Would you care to share one?
We witnessed many inspiring stories about doctors’ dedication or family members suffering from separation, but no matter what sort of difficulties or how painful experience is, humanity can survive with faith and hope. Covid-19 reminded us that we all are interconnected and we all need to take care of each other and safeguard lives around us.
Let me share with you a story of Fr. David Lonergan, a Dean of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Dublin. Throughout the pandemic, he has volunteered as a Chaplain in various hospitals, visiting very ill and helpless in the ICUs and comforting those in great fear knowing they are most likely facing death, and the same time putting his life at high risk. It is a gesture of great support and devotion that deserves appreciation and gratitude from all of us.
Ambassador Zurabashvili, please accept my gratitude for taking time out of your busy schedule. We wish your Excellency, your staff and the Georgian people good health, prosperity and happiness. Thank you very much for taking time to speak with me.
Miceál, it was my pleasure.