Perspectives on Georgia’s “Western Orientation”

As more and more analysts question the strength and durability of Georgia’s “Western orientation”, it becomes increasingly important to gain a clear understanding of what “Western orientation” actually entails in Georgia, and how useful it actually is as a conceptual framework for understanding Georgian politics.  Spoiler alert: it’s not what it seems to be.

The common, liberal (as in IR Liberalism) narrative takes Georgian aspirations towards Euro-Atlantic integration for granted, which explains why there is a new round of hand-wringing every time some internal conflict within Georgia presents the spectre of a pro-Russian turn.  Georgian Dream fails to protect a Pride march – is this the end of Georgia’s European aspirations?  Georgian Dream pulls out of the April 19th agreement – is *this* the end of Georgia’s European aspirations?  Every failure by the Georgian government to uphold liberal democracy becomes a threat to the entire premise of Euro-Atlantic integration, from a liberal point of view.

According to this narrative, it is just self-evident that membership in international institutions, like NATO and the EU, will be good for Georgia, and that (therefore) any deviation from the Euro-Atlantic path is clearly bad for Georgia, and therefore represents a failure of policy or governance in Georgia.  But what if Georgians don’t actually want their country to be a liberal democracy?  The common explanation for Georgian Dream’s “failures” from a Euro-Atlantic perspective is that the party is chasing the electorate – trying to fend off the opposition in the next round of elections.  But if the very things that please the electorate are the things that are viewed as a failure to move towards Euro-Atlantic integration, then perhaps it’s worth considering what the Georgian people actually want from their government, and how that squares with the poll numbers showing that 78% of Georgians favor EU integration.  Perhaps Georgian Dream isn’t failing at EU integration – perhaps it’s succeeding at some other goal – perhaps even a goal which may not revolve around international institutions as the primary determiner of outcomes.

The recent overt conflicts between Georgian “traditional” values and modern European values are not surprising.  There has been a latent contradiction between Georgian traditions and European ideals dating back years if not decades.  I wrote about the fever-dream of the Georgian “intelligentsia” that Georgia should join the EU so Georgians could remind Europeans about traditional values and lead Europe back into the 15th century way back in 2013.  Georgians may “want to” be part of Europe, but they most certainly don’t want to embrace European values.

I put “want to” in quotes because I don’t actually think it’s a matter of aspiration for most Georgians.  The Georgians I talk to don’t seem to wish that Georgia were a part of Europe.  The Georgians I talk to seem to believe that Georgia is already a part of Europe, and integration with the EU is simply an acknowledgement of that fact to which Georgia is entitled.  The attitude is something like “well we’re European – why shouldn’t we have visa-free travel to Paris?”

Of course, there are Georgians who stand to benefit economically from access to EU markets and so would theoretically support e.g. laws regulating meat processing to bring the industry up to European standards.  Of course, there are Georgians who are very progressive and hope that EU integration will pressure the Georgian government into adopting progressive laws and protecting marginalized groups.  But I think most Georgians just take it for granted that Georgia is part of Europe, and always has been, and so of course the country should join the EU.  And beyond visa liberalization, I basically never hear any concrete discussions of the pros and cons of EU integration.  That’s because, for the most part, the actual reality of what EU integration would actually be like is completely irrelevant to the question of whether Georgians are for or against it.

Because of course, if you asked Georgians “should Georgia join an international organization that will force the country to accept LGBTQ marches in the capital once per year” it would emphatically not get 78% support.

But the upshot of this theory is that, if correct, none of the policy disputes liberals concern themselves with matter, at all.  Georgian pro-EU sentiment is robust to the extent that it is completely divorced from reality, and so events like an anti-gay pogrom or the government reneging on an EU-brokered deal have no impact whatsoever on Georgia’s “European aspirations”.  I think this theory is about 90% true, but your mileage may vary.

Geopolitically, I like to use a slightly more realist lens to examine the behaviors of states.  Georgia’s gestures towards Euro-Atlantic integration are a way of attempting to counter Russian power and influence, which is currently undermining the sovereignty of the Georgian state.  On the other hand, this very lack of sovereignty has already foreclosed actual Euro-Atlantic integration, as neither NATO nor the EU will accept Georgia while it is the midst of an unresolved border dispute with Russia – and everybody knows it.  Being consigned to indefinite provisional status, Georgia has very little incentive to accede to EU demands that it does not perceive to be in its self-interest.

Georgia needs to toe the line enough to maintain visa liberalization and trade partnerships and keep attracting foreign aid and investment money, and the regime has to be able to tout the prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration to win elections, but once you realize that actual integration has never been on the table, all the apocalyptic warnings that GD is jeopardizing that integration ring a bit hollow.

As for the EU and NATO, these organizations also derive benefits from Georgia being a pro-Western buffer state.  Ultimately they aren’t going to stop trying to entice Georgia no matter how many times the Georgian government disappoints them by prioritizing some aspect of domestic politics over the country’s international obligations.  They can express all the exasperation in the world, but in the end they need pro-Western buffer states on Russia’s periphery because it makes them feel secure.

As long as all parties have perceived security incentives to maintain good relationships, they will.  On the other hand, to the extent that Georgia is actually getting limited help on that front, we should expect to see limited commitment from Georgia to upholding Euro-Atlantic norms and ideals – that is, on issues that aren’t directly tied to concrete benefits.  If the EU credibly threatened to drop visa liberalization tomorrow, you’d see Gharibashvili personally marching down Rustaveli waving a rainbow flag in one hand and an EU flag in the other.  But that’s not going to happen, because all of this soft power stuff is secondary – it’s an epiphenomenon of states’ security arrangements.

Finally, I want to question the merit of the “threat to Euro-Atlantic integration” framing from a moral perspective.  Allowing attacks on NGOs, journalists, and LGBTQ+ people is bad.  It’s not bad because it threatens Georgia’s prospects for EU membership.  It’s not bad because it might reduce tourism from LGBTQ people.  It’s bad because NGO workers, journalists, and LGBTQ+ people have a moral right to exist and the government has a moral right to protect them.  It’s bad because a society that embraces violence is a morally defective society, and Georgians shouldn’t want their society to be like that.  It’s bad because it hurts people.  Global politics may be transactional – “pass an anti-discrimination law or we won’t let you into our club” – but local politics shouldn’t be.  Sometimes we should just encourage each other to do the right thing because it is right, and not because it might open up the EU market to locally-produced artisanal cheeses.

There’s a tendency for foreign Georgia-watchers to frame criticisms of Georgian politics and policy in terms of their impacts on foreigners, and while these impacts can have second-order effects on Georgia itself – on tourism, FDI, institutional membership, and international reputation – it’s important to keep in mind that these are not the priorities of the average Georgian.  Georgians don’t look at a rise in attacks on journalists and think “uh-oh, our European partners aren’t going to like this!”

It’s understandable that as foreigners we’d focus on what we have a stake in.  And it’s also understandable that statements by international officials, in English, are more accessible to us than the dinner-table conversations of the average Georgian family.  But that makes foreign analysis of Georgia doubly self-involved.  Having married into a Georgian family, I will tell you that since July 5th I’ve heard more talk in my home about the rising price of sunflower oil and potatoes than I have about anything involving Pride, the EU, the Michel agreement, or the attacks on journalists.

I’ve said before that Georgian local politics don’t play well into these grand geopolitical narratives, like Russia vs. The West.  If you look at English-language media reports on Georgia over the last decade you would get the impression that Georgia has been in the process of blowing its prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration since 2012.  The trouble is, that’s not what it feels like to live here.  Georgians are decidedly not sitting around the dinner table talking about how much they wish they could join the EU.  They’re talking about the prices of basic goods and services, about the rise in petty crime, about police not making the roads safe.

There’s plenty of room for criticism of the Georgian Dream government on those issues.  Georgians deserve affordable food and medical care, secure homes and communities, and safe roads.  But again, these things have nothing to do with Georgia’s relationship to the EU, and I’ve now seen Georgians publicly complain that framing them as problems for “tourism” comes off as callous and insensitive.

In conclusion, there’s a limit to how much weight Georgia’s “Western Orientation” can bear in an analysis of Georgian politics and policy.  The “pro-Western” consensus in Georgian society is not so much a consensus that Georgia should be part of Europe as it is a consensus that Georgia is already a part of Europe, and that this should be acknowledged and confer benefits.  There’s a transactional element to Georgian-Western relations that Westerners can lean on to pressure Georgia, but due to geopolitical realities there’s a hard limit of how much leverage this actually gives the West, and we’re already pretty much at that limit.  And the tendency to analyze everything in Georgia in terms of its impact on Westerners encourages us to ignore the bread-and-butter issues that matter to Georgians and frame everything in terms of a Grand Narrative that has virtually no local currency, which in turn gives us an understanding that is disconnected from Georgia’s everyday reality and unable to adequately explain developments in Georgian politics.

 

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Coronavirus in Tbilisi – July 11th, 2021

I am going to make this the last regular, weekly coronavirus in Tbilisi update.  Coronavirus just isn’t occupying my mind the way it used to be, and just reporting numbers off a spreadsheet without in-depth, critical analysis doesn’t feel like it would enough value to the discourse on coronavirus for it to be worthwhile to keep doing.

What I’ll do instead is write about coronavirus irregularly – perhaps in response to large events or important issues; perhaps when the mood strikes me.

This is an odd time to abandon my post, given that we’re on the upswing of what is looking like a Delta wave that will probably be much larger than the Alpha (third) wave and possibly even larger than the second wave.  But I think you don’t need me telling you exactly how fast everything is going to shit right now.

I got into a stupid argument on facebook about Sinopharm.  Some individual said they were not willing to take a Chinese vaccine due to “personal reasons” and doing their “own research.”  I’ve tried to be the voice of reason, but it’s an unreasonable world, and I’m tired.  If you aren’t vaccinated by now nothing I say is going to make you get vaccinated, and if that’s your attitude you can navigate the fourth wave on your own.  For the rest of you I’m just preaching to the choir.

Of course if you have a specific question feel free to write me a comment.

Last Week’s Shenanigans

Last Sunday there were no numbers reported.  Late Monday, they reported numbers for July 4th and 5th in aggregate.  I have no way at present of knowing exactly how many cases there were on Sunday and Monday.  That means I wasn’t able to give a suitable projection.  My preliminary projection, based on the numbers up to Saturday, overshot the mark by quite a bit.  Numbers decreased by quite a lot on Sunday and Monday, jumped up on Tuesday and Wednesday, stabilized on Thursday and Friday, and then jumped up again yesterday and today.  Tbilisi reported 609 cases today, which is the highest number we’ve had on a Sunday since December 20th.

I don’t know whether that should set off alarm bells or not, though, because the numbers have been jumping around so much for the last two weeks even discounting last Sunday’s reporting shenanigans.

Numbers…ish

My weekly numbers are also sort of theoretical because Sunday’s numbers (which normally would have applied last week) and Monday’s (which apply this week) weren’t separated, so my 7-day totals won’t be accurate again until tomorrow.  That said, my theoretical 7-day total based on an estimate of how many of the Sunday/Monday cases would normally have been reported on Monday is 4704 cases in Tbilisi this week.  My estimated projection based on that would be 5882 cases for next week.  But I don’t know how accurate that is – like I said, today is kind of an extreme outlier in terms of having a lot of cases for a Sunday.  Based on yesterday’s numbers I would have predicted about 5333 cases for next week, which is a difference of more than 500 cases (more than 10% of the total).  There’s just a lot of wackiness with these numbers, which is again partially due to reporting shenanigans.  But big picture – we’ve added about 1000 cases for the last two weeks and so we can make a very zoomed-out guess that we’ll add about 1000 cases this week as well, which would put us in the realm of 5700 cases.

Nationwide we had 1000+ cases for five days in a row and the trend is pointing towards an increase for next week.  8104 cases reported in the last 7 days but a few hundred of those will be holdovers from last Sunday; it would be safe to say we’ve had 7500 cases this week.  I’d expect 9000 – 10000 cases reported next week nationwide.

News

We had a bunch of rallies this week during which many people were maskless and in close proximity to one another.  These were mostly outside but that doesn’t eliminate risk when people are so close together.  We’ve seen how large outdoor gatherings in the US have produced increases in transmission, and remember Delta is more contagious.  Gamkrelidze says no one is taking any precautions anymore and everything is going to hell and he’s not wrong.  He seems to be saying, also, that they aren’t planning to add any new restrictions – just enforce existing ones and try to step up the vaccination campaign.  Good luck getting it through anyone’s thick skull that they need to get a vaccine ASAP.  Delta is already here.  We’ve already lost the race; the next month is just going to be surveying the wreckage and shaking our heads sadly at how bad we let it get.  This is why I think we could be looking at the worst wave yet – the second wave was what happened when we tried to power through a surge in the original strain with no restrictions; now we’re going to try to do the same with Delta.  Bad idea.

Keep checking provax.ge for updates on vaccine availability.  After last week’s cyberattacks I think they changed the link to the booking website – some people were trying to register on Monday and reporting that the site was down, but they were using the old link.  I hear second doses of AZ are in country and will be available soon.  By the way, does anyone know if the cyberattacks on the booking site were related in any way to the reporting shenanigans?  Seems like a big coincidence if they weren’t.

Well, that’s all.  It’s been a wild ride but I hope I’ve managed to convince at least a few people that even without absolute knowledge, we can still summarize what we do know, draw reasonable conclusions, and make decisions under conditions of uncertainty.  Science works.  Don’t give in to intellectual nihilism.

Stay healthy!

 

Posted in Health and Sickness in Georgia | Leave a comment

Pride and Politics

Today, Tbilisi Pride called off the “March of Honor” in light of threats, intimidation, and actual violence against journalists and activists.  This was not at all unexpected: in my predictions post, I had given it only a 30% chance that all three announced Pride events would go on as planned, and only a 10% chance that the police would succeed in protecting Pride.

I do have to admit that I did not anticipate the attacks on journalists in particular.  It’s not exactly surprising, though; people had shown up to these events spoiling for a fight and, without Pride activists around, they struck out at targets of convenience – journalists viewed as biased in favor of the activists – and attacked the offices of Pride and related NGOs such as the Shame Movement.

I’ve been following reactions closely on twitter and a few related narratives keep popping up, attempting to place this even within the context of the broader West vs. Russia narrative.  I will admit to having been fooled by this narrative in the past – assuming that if UNM was pro-Western then Georgian Dream must be pro-Russian – but this isn’t actually the way politics works.  Georgian politics aren’t polarized in the way US politics are, where if you are on the Red team you hate everything associated with the Blue team, and vice versa.

Claims that these events were carried out by pro-Putin groups, and pose a threat to Euro-Atlantic integration or EU candidacy, are based on this flawed narrative and assumption of US-style polarization.  They’re a vast oversimplification, and are insulting to Georgians, who do in fact have the agency to select political positions on their own without urging from Brussels or Moscow.

I’ve written about the extreme homophobia in Georgia numerous times before, and you simply cannot discount it.  Putin does often capitalize on homophobia both domestically and abroad but it doesn’t come from him.  It might be accurate to say that anti-LGBTQ+ groups in Russia’s region are playing into Putin’s hands when they create unrest in countries that Putin wants to destabilize but it would not be accurate to say that these groups are acting out against LGBTQ+ activism out of allegiance to Putin.  Many of the Georgians involved in anti-LGBTQ+ violence are nationalists and “patriots” who absolutely detest the Russian occupation of Georgian territories and think Putin is a monster.  I’m not saying that none of them have pro-Putin sympathies or ties – many of them do – but calling these groups pro-Putin is totally obscuring the actual issue, which is that homophobia is a much bigger problem in Georgia for LGBTQ+ rights than Russian influence.

Now, does it matter if the homophobes are homophobic out of a genuine hatred for LGBTQ+ people, or because Putin is feeding them homophobic propaganda?  I believe that it does.  It matters as a matter of truth and also as a matter of pragmatism: the solution to pro-Putin mob violence is very different from the solution to genuinely homophobic mob violence.

Furthermore, the idea that the LGBTQ+ rights struggle in Georgia is a proxy for the struggle between Russia and the West for influence plays into the narrative that LGBTQ+ rights are a foreign import rather than a genuine Georgian phenomenon.  This matters greatly when dealing with nationalists who think that LGBTQ+ Georgians are actually foreign agents.  Everyone who is saying that the international community and the EU in particular should punish Georgia for not upholding LGBTQ+ rights is ignoring the fact that this would inflame the nationalist sentiments that are fueling a lot of the anti-LGBTQ+ rage that we’re seeing.  Remember, the prevailing narrative ten years ago was that there were no gays in Georgia – that literally all of the LGBTQ+ rights activism in the country was foreign influence and foreign provocation.  LGBTQ+ Georgians have done a lot to challenge that narrative – have sacrificed a lot – and while international solidarity helps, there’s a limit to how much it can help.  Georgia needs to face this issue internally.

In general, the international community can put pressure on a country, and criticize a country, but there’s a limit to how much pressure they can bring to bear before people inside the targeted country start feeling like the international community is encroaching on their sovereignty.  EU representatives know this – they’ve all studied the same international relations field as I have –  and so while I expect to see strong condemnations of violence and statements calling on the Georgian government to prosecute the offenders and do better next time, I would be absolutely shocked to see actual sanctions or penalties applied by Georgia’s international partners.

Yes, it’s true that this represents a failure of the Georgian state to meet its obligations to human rights.  However, when a country fails to do something, cutting off ties with them doesn’t fix the failure.  It just removes incentives to do better.  If the EU does indeed see LGBTQ+ rights as a major priority, they will want to continue dialogue and cooperation with a country like Georgia in order to continue to exert soft power on the country to change its behaviors with respect to LGBTQ+ rights.

Of course, the cynic in me says that the EU doesn’t ascribe much importance to LGBTQ+ rights at all, and is more concerned with economic and strategic geopolitical concerns, and would never in a million years compromise the economic and strategic potential of increased partnership with Georgia over a mere social issue like the right to freedom of assembly for minority groups.  Georgia is no China, but the international community’s anemic response to the Uighur genocide is a good demonstration of the general principle that economic and strategic geopolitical concerns absolutely and always trump internal human rights issues.

In any case, for any international body to sanction Georgia or cut ties with Georgia over this issue would be against their own interests and also would most likely be counterproductive in terms of advancing LGBTQ+ rights in Georgia.  Again, I’d be shocked if it happens.

Another narrative I’ve seen is that this is somehow a “challenge” to Georgia’s “fragile democracy.”  It isn’t, and again, this is insulting to Georgians.  When antifa and neo-Nazis clash in the US no one clutches their pearls about how it’s a challenge to fragile American democracy – even after the neo-Nazis killed a woman in Charlottesville.  Obviously a democracy in which one group can’t exercise its civil rights is not a full democracy, but take the long view here – LGBTQ+ activists have been steadily pushing the boundaries in terms of what civil rights they can exercise for a decade now, and rather than persecuting them the only criticism we can fairly level against the government is that they are not going far enough to protect these activists.

Georgia is democratic and you can see that when you turn on the news and see opposition MPs criticizing the PM for his criticism of Pride – in other words, there is democratic dialogue within government about the problem, which is how democracies work.  It’s messy and imperfect but it’s the way modern societies build consensus around contentious issues.  In fact my main criticism of Saakashvili was that he did not build consensus around important issues, which meant that even when he had a great policy reform, by dragging the majority of the population kicking and screaming toward that reform, he undermined its sustainability.  It seemed to me that when GD came into office they repealed a lot of Saakashvili’s programs just because Saakashvili had done them, and not because they needed repealing.  Again this is related to the issue of outside pressure – when there’s an issue that most of the population doesn’t support you can’t just coerce them into supporting it.  It would be better if we could criticize the PM’s regressive statements on Pride without having to witness actual violence first, but the violence doesn’t mean democracy is broken here any more than it has on any of the many, many occasions when civil rights protests in the US have been met with violence.

Now I don’t want to push this counternarrative too much because the apocalyptic lamentations about the end of Georgia’s ‘fragile’ democracy have their utility.  It’s good to motivate pro-democracy Georgians to support LGBTQ+ rights in the name of democracy even if they personally don’t care for LGBTQ+ rights.  In fact I saw some of this after 2013.  I think we’ll see a lot more of it now.  I think that Georgians telling each other that today’s events mean the country is horrible and not worthy of joining the EU is probably good.  But I think that foreigners trying to impose that narrative on Georgia is probably bad.  And also, I don’t think it’s true, so there’s that.

Last point on these narratives: there are a lot of calls for some kind of punitive action against the Georgian state as a whole, and I’m not on board with that.  As I said above, it’s not likely to induce the state to get better – rather, it’s likely to remove the state’s incentives to improve.  I also want to say that I think it’s part of a larger mindset I see a lot in progressive circles where the way to win at politics is by flexing your power – by cutting off or deplatforming or shaming the person or entity that has violated your principles.  Certainly that can work sometimes but in the case of a country like Georgia we have to acknowledge the realpolitik: progressives aren’t the ones with the power.  You can’t deplatform the Partriarch when he has an 87% approval rating, no matter how much he might deserve it.

Instead, look at this chart of Georgian public opinion about the Church:

In five years, their performance rating has gone from 75% “good” to 50%, and from 2% “bad” to 12% “bad”.  When the Patriarch calls for a “prayer session” that results in more than 50 journalists from a broad spectrum of media companies assaulted and the attendant national and international bad press, what do you think happens to those numbers?

This is a case where we need good, old-fashioned liberal free speech.  Let the Church elders spread their hatred and bigotry, and let the Georgian people see who they are and decide for themselves.  They’re even provoking dissent from within the ranks of the clergy, with some going so far as to call the homophobic violence “primitive”.  When I see Georgians on social media, and even on Georgian news programs, they’re all denouncing the violence, and most are denouncing the homophobia as well.

This is why, as bad as today was, when viewed against the bigger picture I think we’re still making progress overall.  We’re in the midst of a generational shift and events like today’s accelerate that shift.  And just comparing this year’s Pride events to 2013, it’s notable that even though the march was canceled (well, likely postponed – if I know Pride they’ll hold a guerilla march in the coming weeks) the screening and Pride Fest still went on.  Two out of three ain’t bad, and it’s certainly more than most of us could have imagined eight years ago.

I say all this not to minimize the hurt and disappointment that people are feeling now – in fact I encourage people to express outrage at the violence and oppression – but to remind people not to give up hope.

The one potential problem that some people have pointed out that does have some credibility is that far-right groups could also see this as a victory, and become emboldened to do more violence in the future.  That probably depends on the state’s response, in terms of arrests and prosecutions.  That would be a great place for activists to focus pressure now and indeed NGOs like TIGeorgia have already issued statements to the effect that if the government doesn’t act now, the environment becomes more dangerous for everybody.  This is true but even if these groups are in fact temporarily emboldened, Georgians only have so much tolerance for violent vigilante groups attacking NGOs and journalists and further violence will continue to cost the Georgian right wing legitimacy and eventually force the government to act, one way or another.  I just can’t see any scenario in which this situation precipitates a slide into actual mob rule and failed statehood in Georgia.  And yes, I have accused the Georgian government of being a failed state – after the last time they failed to protect Pride – but that was rhetoric; it’s satisfying to say, but the truth is Georgia is no more a failed state now than the US was on January 6th, and in many ways is less of one.

I’ll end with this: there are many on twitter who are, quite rightly, placing blame on the Church and on Georgian Dream politicians whose statements inflamed tension and seemed to greenlight the violence.  There’s a story going around that the politicians made these statements in order to appease the Church and garner votes.  Politicians pandering to the religious right is nothing new or surprising, but again here I think that we were actually seeing the genuine inclinations of these politicians.  In other words, I don’t think they were calculating and decided that this was the politically wise course; rather, I think they just stumbled into this trajectory out of a mix of stupidity and latent homophobia.  I suspect the opposition is going to be able to capitalize on this and I wonder if it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – GD already has a tenuous hold on political power and has been embroiled in a political crisis since October.  If they are indeed gambling on netting votes via this situation by appealing to Church leaders with homophobia, that gamble may backfire.  Combined with the Ninotsminda orphanage scandal (credible allegations of child physical and sexual abuse by clergy requiring the government to intervene) I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole edifice comes crumbling down, with the Church and Georgian Dream feeding off each other in a far-right-wing death spiral while the rest of the country looks on in utter disgust.

 

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

Coronavirus in Tbilisi – July 4th, 2021

Numbers

We got absolutely slammed this week.  The government hasn’t posted numbers yet for today – as of 6:47pm – but as of yesterday our 7-day total was 3946 for Tbilisi – up from 2750 last week.  I imagine once numbers post that number will go up by another 100 or 200 cases.  I might post revised numbers for the whole week once the government posts its numbers for today, depending on when it happens; I’ve already wasted a lot of my day hitting refresh on stopcov.ge and ncdc.ge and I’m not inclined to continue indefinitely.

Preliminary projection based on yesterday’s numbers is 6675 cases in Tbilisi next week (with the margin of error, you’d expect 5206 – 8143).

Nationwide, testing is down a bit – from 28502 tests per day last week to 27362 tests per day this week (again, excluding today’s numbers).  As of yesterday, Tbilisi accounted for 64.57% of cases nationwide – a proportion which has risen every day since June 8th, when it was 53.07%.

Nationwide we’ve had 6111 cases in the seven days leading up to yesterday and my model predicts we’ll hit 8159 cases by next Saturday (margin of error: 6364 – 9954).  So nationwide we’re looking at over 1000 cases/day most days next week.  Nationwide positive test rate is up to 3.28% (from 2.33% last week), again, as of yesterday.

Analysis

Well look, it’s pretty clear that numbers this week absolutely blew past my model’s projection.  The model I use is just a very simple exponential growth model and can’t really predict sudden sharp increases, which are very rare – just from looking at the graph of case numbers, we’ve maybe had one increase this sudden and sharp in the entire pandemic.  So this is a once-per-year anomaly and I don’t feel too bad about missing it.

Why did we get this sudden, sharp increase in cases?  Short answer: it looks like we got hit with the Delta wave at the exact time when the government’s loosening of restrictions caused a major shift in public behavior.

Before we dive into Delta, let’s first look at the other factors: public policy, weather, and individual behavior.

The public policy change that fits the timeline is the dropping of the outdoor mask mandate.  As of June 22nd, masks were no longer required outdoors; exactly five days later, we see the beginning of arguably the sharpest spike in cases in Georgia’s entire 16-month pandemic saga.  That’s not proof, but it’s certainly damning circumstantial evidence.  Since wearing masks outdoors is not known to be very important in reducing transmission, I’d have to assume that people took “masks are no longer required outdoors” to mean “masks are no longer required” or even “coronavirus is over”.  This in turn would contribute to a massive surge in risky behavior which then produced the surge in cases we’ve seen.  (As an aside, 1tv.ge very recently removed it’s “COVID-19” news section from its site header – an indicator, if I’ve ever seen one, that Georgian elites see the pandemic as over).

At about the same time, temperatures reached a point that would push a lot of people into indoor, air-conditioned (poorly ventilated) spaces.  And individuals saw a stabilization of numbers, plus the government easing a bunch of restrictions, plus maybe their vaccinated friends going out and taking more risks, and so probably many, many people have been steadily increasing their risk tolerance.  And the June 22nd announcement – dropping the mask requirement plus announcing the upcoming end of curfew – probably served as a focal point for a major readjustment of risk tolerance.  That readjustment produced this week’s spike in cases.

That explanation actually feels right, but for completeness sake I want to mention a less obvious but still plausible culprit: Delta.  I’ve previously reported that there weren’t many Delta cases in Georgia yet and that experts were saying we wouldn’t see the Delta wave until August.  However, the Alpha (UK) wave peaked a lot earlier than I’d expected which suggests that the Georgian government was massively underestimating the number of Alpha variant cases in the country right from the beginning, and the same might well be true of Delta.  In that case, it’s possible that Delta has already taken over as the main variant in Georgia and is therefore the main force driving the increase.  Note that it’s almost certain that some of the new cases we saw this week were Delta – the question is just whether the Delta cases were enough to cause this sudden spike.  I don’t think we have any good estimates of the prevalence of Delta in Georgia; if we do, I’m not seeing them reported.  The most recent I can find is “10 to 20 percent” from Tuesday.  Again, remember that official sources were almost certainly totally lowballing the percentages of the UK strain at the beginning of the third wave.  They told us on April 7th, that UK strain was 20-30% and then four days later changed that to 50-70%.  One might think they’d have learned from that mistake, but if they haven’t, it’s totally plausible that 10-20% on Tuesday means 50% today.  And if we’re anywhere within the range of, say, 30% to 70% Delta, then we would expect to see that reflected in a big surge in daily case counts.

In summation, it’s quite likely that Delta is causing at least some increase in our daily case counts, although the data are so bad on variants in Georgia that I cannot possibly quantify how much of an effect that is having.  At the same time, we’ve seen a spike exactly five days after the announcement of two major relaxations of public precautions and the implementation of one of those.  The timing there seems way too exact to be coincidence.  So what I think is going on is that we’re getting a double-whammy.  I think my model would have been robust enough to roll with an increase in transmission due to the arrival of Delta, or due to the relaxation of major public policy precautions, but the effect of both of those things kicking in simultaneously produced an unprecedentedly sudden spike.

Technical Difficulties

The government posted numbers very late this weekend – around 3:00 yesterday, and not at all today as of this writing, at 6:47 pm.  The booking portal was down yesterday – supposedly as a result of a cyberattack – and today they’ve apparently moved it – check provax.ge for the up-to-date url.  Gabunia says they’ve essentially given up on trying to make the booking site work and are just going to open call centers around the country where people can make appointments directly with clinics which despite my sarcasm actually seems like a good idea – the booking site was always glitchy and it’s putting less tech-savvy people – as well as people without computers/internet – at a disadvantage.

That’s it for today – like I said I wasted a lot of time spinning my wheels waiting for today’s numbers to post, and they haven’t, so I’m calling it quits now.  If you aren’t vaccinated, you’re going to want to step up precautions this week because cases are surging.  Even if you are vaccinated, I’d suggest following WHO recommendations and mitigating your risk – e.g. indoor masking unless you’re around other vaccinated people – to avoid catching and spreading the very contagious Delta strain.  I doubt the government will reimpose restrictions this week, even though they probably should – I think they’ve reached the limits of their political capital and they know it – and so I think we’re in for a bit of a rough ride for the next couple of weeks.  Stay healthy!

Posted in Health and Sickness in Georgia | Leave a comment

The Contested Boundaries of Freedom of Speech

The general theme of this post is limitations on freedom of speech.  What limitations are there on freedom of speech?  What limitations should there be?  How should these be implemented, and by whom?  What are the greatest threats to freedom of speech?  Because freedom of speech is so important, I think it is worthwhile to try to consider these questions outside the usual context in which they are encountered – at the point where someone feels that freedom of speech has been infringed, and complains about it – and consider them in a somewhat broader context.

This post is by no means comprehensive.  I could probably write an entire book on this topic, but in this case I’ve tried to be succinct and keep it to a manageable 3000 words or so.

Accepted Limitations on Free Speech

Freedom of speech is an important part of the political and cultural fabric of the US and the Western world in general.  The Enlightenment saw a movement to push freedom of speech into our institutions – political, religious, cultural, and educational – and create a safe space for people to discuss and debate issues of personal and public importance.  A wealth of scientific and moral progress was facilitated by having the protections afforded by the adoption of Enlightenment values.  That was hundreds of years ago, but we have largely upheld – or even expanded – the tradition of free speech in Western society, to the point where many simply take it for granted.

However, there have always been reasonable limitations on freedom of speech.  Legally, my understanding is that I cannot use “free speech” to do any of the following activities (not an exhaustive list):

  • plan or solicit a crime or act of terror
  • tarnish the reputation of a private person with lies (libel or slander)
  • reveal or transmit state secrets
  • incite violence
  • deceive someone into giving me their money or property (e.g. fraud)

In addition to those legal limitations, there are also social limitations.  Social limitations – which you might call “norms” – are enforced socially, and breaking them might result in a rebuke from a friend or family member, or in being shunned, or in losing access to some social privileges.  Socially, I am not permitted use my speech to do any of the following:

  • insult someone’s family, religion, country, culture, etc.
  • use racial or other slurs
  • discuss taboo topics (which topics are taboo vary based on the context)
  • lie (some lies may be socially acceptable in some circumstances, but generally, there is a social penalty for being known as dishonest)
  • reveal or transmit personal secrets
  • bully someone

In addition there are institutional limitations on freedom of speech.  In general, institutions may place restrictions on their members about what kinds of things they can and cannot say in order to protect the reputation and privacy of the institution and its members.  For example, many companies will fire you if you publicly express support for Nazism and enough people notice that the company starts to get complaints.  But also, if you work for a corporation, you can’t reveal trade secrets; if you work for a hospital, you can’t reveal patient information; etc.

So while we talk about freedom of speech as being absolute and inviolable, in fact there is a tapestry of limitations to our speech coming from our government, society, jobs, and other organizations and groups which we belong to.  Most of these limitations are accepted and even welcomed by most people in society, who actively take part in policing each other’s speech to ensure that it follows legal, social, and institutional rules and norms.

For example, as a teacher, I actively made sure that my students did not insult each others’ families, religions, countries, or cultures; didn’t use racial or other slurs; didn’t discuss topics which were not appropriate for school; and didn’t bully anyone.  As a parent, I teach my children what they can and can’t say, and what they should and shouldn’t say.  And as a member of society, when someone violates the social speech norms that I consider important, I register my disapproval.  To an extent, we all do things like this.

Given that freedom of speech has limitations, and that in many cases the establishment and enforcement of these limitations is based on a political or social consensus, it is sometimes necessary to reevaluate these limitations and ensure that they’re serving our needs as a society.  Right now, I am aware of two major areas where the limitations on free speech are being contested, and unfortunately, the discourse around these areas seems to be less than optimal.  These areas are misinformation and cancel culture.

Misinformation

If I want to go on the internet and discourage people from taking vaccines – not just covid vaccines, but any vaccines – I am allowed to do it.  I am allowed to lie and make up stories.  I am allowed to knowingly claim, falsely, that vaccines cause autism and infertility, that Bill Gates is injecting us with 5G chips, that mRNA vaccines will edit your DNA and turn you into a mutant, and that the entire coronavirus pandemic was deliberately created by Big Pharma in order to sell vaccines which they know are harmful.

Note that slander, libel, and fraud are all illegal, because they involve a) lying and b) harm.  Anti-vaccine misinformation fits these criteria as well.  It’s illegal to lie about me in a way that tarnishes my reputation because that would harm me, but to lie about a vaccine in a way that tarnishes the vaccine’s reputation and potentially harms millions of people is perfectly legal?  This makes no sense.  We’ve already decided that there is no compelling public interest in allowing people to tell harmful lies.  The principle is already enshrined in our laws.  The only difference is that the problem of medical misinformation is so new that the law hasn’t caught up with it yet.

Faecbook, YouTube, and other social media organizations have done their parts, in their own ad hoc and nontransparent ways, to fight harmful medical misinformation during the pandemic.  But fundamentally this issue is too important to be left to the whims of private corporations.  It’s a matter of public interest and the government therefore needs to make rules which are fair, reasonable, transparent, and subject to interpretation by open and transparent courts rather than whatever AI or committee Zuckerberg decides to put in charge of content moderation.

This is not just about limiting speech, but also protecting it.  What if Facebook is overzealous in limiting speech?  At one point Facebook and YouTube were censoring lab leak posts.  The lab leak theory was not a lie – it may or may not be true, but it is a plausible working theory which many scientists endorse.  The lab leak theory is not medically harmful – there’s some concern that it “may” fuel anti-Asian sentiment, but I think we can agree that social media companies have no business banning speech on the basis that it “may” inflame racism.  Understanding whether the virus came from nature or a lab is a vital question in the public interest, and it is exactly the kind of question which can only be answered satisfactorily through open scientific debate and inquiry.  In other words, it’s exactly the kind of case for which Enlightenment free speech values are so valuable.

There’s a legitimate question of who should decide what theories are legitimate and what theories are obvious harmful lies.  We need to differentiate between anti-vax lies (like the 5G conspiracy theory) and anti-vax truths (like the AZ-blood clot connection).  We need to differentiate between clear and substantial harm (like anti-vax speech fueling actual measles outbreaks) and vague, attenuated, or hypothetical harm (like the lab leak theory causing racism).  My best answer is that when it comes to questions in the public interest, duly elected and accountable representatives of the people should be making these determinations rather than private companies.  Not only would this help align speech standards with the public interest, it would also ensure fairness in the sense that everyone would know in advance what the standards are.

Governments need to step in and make laws about harmful medical misinformation – after a period of public debate and deliberation, of course – and issue guidelines for media companies to comply with them.

Cancel Culture

Many people consider cancel culture to be a threat to freedom of speech.  Cancel culture has the potential to stifle debate about important questions in the public interest.  However, I am going to argue that this concern is largely overblown.  In most cases, cancel culture is just the application of existing speech norms, but according to modern, progressive understandings of what those norms entail.

Recall that earlier I mentioned I would face social penalties if I insulted someone’s family, religion, culture, country, etc.  This is not controversial.  However, what counts as an insult is open to interpretation, as is what is covered under “etc.”, as is how serious an insult has to be to merit penalties, as is what counts as a proportional response.

I’m going to try to choose an example here that is not too taboo or controversial but should illustrate the point well enough.  There is a widespread sentiment in the US that rap music is not music.  At the time of writing, the debate.org page on the question “is rap music real music” indicates that 61% of responses believe that rap is not real music.  One might conclude from the very existence of the debate.org page that this is, in fact, a legitimate debatable question, and that the range of acceptable opinions on the question is “yes, maybe, no”, and that it is an important question in the public interest to delineate the boundaries of “real music.”

And yet.  I can’t help but notice that claiming that rap is not music is deeply insulting to Black culture in the US.  In fact, even debating whether or not rap is music would seem to be insulting to Black culture.  There is no White genre of music that has its very status as music questioned, analyzed, and publicly interrogated.  I would point to the debate over whether rap music is real music as evidence in favor of the claim that systemic racism and white supremacist ideology are still mainstream and deeply embedded in US culture.  It is a racist question and a racist debate.  I would go so far as to argue that it is a proxy for the question “are Black people as valuable as White people”, which is a question that you used to be able to “debate” in the US before they “canceled” the three-fifths compromise.  But let’s not get too radical here.  I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.

Let’s put aside the question of whether the musicality of rap is a legitimate debate topic and just agree that it’s insulting to Black culture to claim that rap isn’t real music.  We’ve already noted that insulting someone’s culture is a type of speech that might subject one to social sanctions.  So the issue should now be fairly clear: to some approximation, 61% of Americans are willing to publicly insult Black culture.  And because the belief is so widespread, they also expect to be able to get away with it.  I think a White person would be very surprised if they said “rap music isn’t music” and someone else replied “that’s racist, please don’t say things like that”, and if it happened on a public forum they might complain about wokeness or censorship or cancel culture.

But remember, if someone insults your culture, you’re supposed to be able to tell them to cut it out, and society is supposed to be able to have your back.  It’s always been that way.  Progressives aren’t attacking free speech here – they’re just pointing out that a question that you might think is innocuous is actually insulting.  That’s why progressives frequently focus on uplifting the voices of marginalized groups – because people in the majority sometimes don’t know that their “opinion” or their “debate topic” is insulting and hurtful.  And yes, every White person involved in that “debate” is crowding out a Black voice that could settle the debate very quickly by pointing out exactly how racist and dehumanizing it is.

A lot of the “debates” that people are getting “canceled” for having are like this one.  Should gay couples be allowed to adopt children?  Should Black people be allowed to protest?  Should trans people be allowed into bathrooms?  Are women naturally bad at math and computer stuff?  Here’s a rule of thumb: if one of the two potential positions in your “debate” is dehumanizing and insulting, it’s not a good topic for debate.  Discussion of the proposition should instead focus on uncovering the underlying bigotry in order to make it clear why the framing of the debate is unacceptable.

There are questions related to all of these marginalized groups that are sensitive and truly debatable, and people are indeed having those debates.  There’s the question of whether trans women should compete with cis women in combat sports like boxing or MMA.  There’s the question of whether the racial achievement gap in academics in the US is a result of genes, or the environment, or something else.  There’s the question of whether trans kids should have access to irreversible medical procedures, and under what circumstances [edit: I endorse this correction to my framing of this issue].  There’s the question of whether and when abortion should be legal.

But note that none of these debates are actually stifled by cancel culture.  You can find a diversity of opinions on these topics in the general public, and among scholars, and in the populations directly affected by the outcome of the debates.  Sure, you need to be sensitive to the nuances of the conversation to avoid offending people in some cases, as with any sensitive topics.  And yes, sometimes progressives can be too quick to take offense, or take offense on behalf of groups that are not actually offended, because there are overzealous people in any group, and because among any group there will be a distribution of people with different tolerances for different types of insults, and because people make mistakes.  But I think a fair assessment of what people are actually getting canceled for reveals that in most cases the cancelee was violating one or more of the pre-established social norms about speech – they were insulting or dehumanizing someone’s culture or race or gender, or they were using a slur, or they were bullying a person or group, or they were violating some well-known and reasonable social taboo – and a lot of times they expected to get away with it.

So it comes down to this: I think that the reaction to cancel culture is largely from people who are losing the ability to freely express their prejudices, biases, and internalized bigotry.  And I think this is a good thing.  If you are about to make a comment about Black people or trans people or women or some other group, and you have to stop and think about it for a moment because you don’t want to get caught saying something offensive – that’s just social pressure working the way it’s supposed to.  You’re supposed to think before you speak.  You’re supposed to avoid saying hurtful things.  Even if you think you have a harsh truth, you’re supposed to exercise tact and restraint.  And if, for whatever reason, you absolutely can’t conceal your contempt for whatever group – like Rowling can’t conceal her contempt for trans people – then yes, you deserve a time-out while you think about how you might interact civilly with others in a polite society.

In some sense, this isn’t even really a free speech issue at all.  No one’s ever been free to insult any and every group they felt like insulting, with full social impunity.  What’s happened is simply that in many circles, marginalized groups have been added to the roster of groups that you aren’t allowed to insult.

Authoritarianism and Conservatism

Freedom of speech is indeed under threat in the world.  Increasingly, journalists and political dissidents can be reached across borders by authoritarian regimes.  Last month, Belarus diverted a plane carrying a dissident journalist, forcing it to land in Minsk and abducting the journalist and his girlfriend.  Here in Georgia, there was the kidnapping of Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azeri journalist, from Tbilisi.  Mukhtarli ended up in an Azeri prison.  Authoritarian countries like China can even kidnap and imprison family members of external dissidents.  Russia has shown a willingness to poison dissidents even while they reside abroad.

Authoritarian regimes are also infamous for disinformation and propaganda campaigns.  Russia’s interference in US elections and China’s use of economic influence to stifle criticism of its human rights abuses are two prime examples – examples which actually influence all of our lives and which shape the public discourse to a disturbing extent.  Disinformation and propaganda can undermine Western free speech norms if we respond to them with too much censorship, which makes it all the more important to continue to have a robust public dialogue about the boundaries of freedom of speech and about the role of our institutions in policing those boundaries.

Meanwhile, the conservative impulse to ban “dangerous” ideas is as strong as ever, with the American Library Association’s “Top 10 Most Challenged Books” list still, as ever, dominated by books which conservatives object to for political or “moral” reasons (like LGBTQ content), and with laws or bills in 25 states by conservatives attempting to ban teachers from teaching about racism.  Putin recently cited Black Lives Matter protests as a justification for his own authoritarianism, claiming that jailing dissidents was a small price to pay for preventing race riots like we have in the US.  That’s the same authoritarian impulse – it’s a small step from banning anti-racist books to banning anti-racist protests.

Here in Georgia, we’ve seen a public ongoing debate about whether Georgia’s LGBTQ+ community should be allowed to express “provocative” ideas – ideas such as “we exist” and “please stop killing us” – and what the appropriate response to those ideas is from society and its institutions.  The comments I keep hearing from anti-LGBTQ+ speakers is that everyone should have freedom of speech – but some people shouldn’t use it.

I shouldn’t be too dismissive of these comments.  There’s an underlying logic to them which is the same as the logic that I’ve used in this post.  To wit: conservatives claim that promoting sin is an insult to Christianity and Georgian culture and traditions, and I’ve argued that free speech doesn’t cover insults.  Conservatives claim that gay propaganda is harmful to children and families, and I’ve argued that free speech doesn’t cover harm or incitement to harm.  If I’m not in favor of universal unlimited freedom of speech, then what basis do I have for rejecting conservative calls to censor Pride?  Aren’t I just being a complete hypocrite, picking and choosing freedom of speech when it’s my ideological allies’ speech at stake but opposing it for my ideological enemies?

My response to that is: you can’t just claim that anything you don’t like is “insulting” or “harmful” and then veto all speech about it.  You have to actually establish the truth of the claim.  Like I said above, vague or theoretical harms (like “lab leak theory causes racism”) aren’t enough to censor lab leak speech – but kids dying of measles should be enough to censor anti-vax misinformation.  So if you’re claiming that something is harmful enough to trigger censorship, you need to prove it – and not just to yourself, or your church, or a mob, but to a legitimate, democratic institution entrusted with making determinations of truth, like a court of law or a legislative body.  And the burden of proof should be high.  I think you’ll find it very difficult to prove that a queer person just existing is an insult to Christianity, or that waving a rainbow flag is going to harm children.  Therefore, censorship of Pride is not justifiable – a conclusion which is supported by an ever-growing international consensus.

Liberal free speech just has an exploit built in, which is that it needs to have exceptions to prevent harmful speech, but these exceptions can always be taken advantage of by bad faith actors who want to censor opposing views by calling them harmful.  There’s no way around this – no principle which can let us escape it.  We simply need to be discerning enough to correctly evaluate which speech is actually harmful and which speech is simply challenging to the status quo.  Authoritarians love this exploit because it fits in with their general strategy of ginning up fear of an out-group and using that fear to trample all over civil liberties.  But the fact is, it usually isn’t very difficult to separate real victims from authoritarians playing the victim as a pretext to censor free thought.

I also mentioned earlier that there are social penalties for using freedom of speech to talk about taboo topics.  Sexuality is a taboo topic in Georgian culture and so it is not unexpected that the Pride demonstrators will face social penalties – they may face criticism from family, friends, clergy, politicians, and other important and/or prominent members of society.  This is all part of a normal social dialogue, and this type of dialogue takes place in every society from both the left and the right.  The difference between “cancel culture” and other “woke” critics of the right and the right-wing attempts in Georgia to stifle Pride is that the right-wingers in Georgia reliably escalate the situation to physical violence.  They did it again yesterday, throwing stones, bottles, and eggs at attendees of a documentary about Pride 2019.  You don’t see lefties showing up at J.K. Rowling’s book signings to throw rocks at her fans.

The Enlightenment concept of enshrining freedom of speech in law and custom came about as a response to authoritarian political and religious figures who quashed dissent through violence and censored any ideas that threatened their power or the worldview that supported it.  To this day, that remains the greatest challenge for those of us who believe in the free exchange of ideas.  The threat isn’t the people who want us to be careful how we talk about marginalized groups, or who want to avoid debate topics that dehumanize people.  The threat is the dictators in the world who are globalizing their illiberalism at an alarming rate and the people in our own societies who look upon those dictators with envy as they bring force and violence to bear upon those whose speech they find distasteful.

I personally support freedom of speech – which should be obvious from this blog as a whole – but supporting something means understanding not just its value but also its limitations and weaknesses.  My understanding of freedom of speech is always evolving in response to new challenges, and I hope from this post it’s relatively clear where that understanding stands today.

Posted in Civics, Politics | 3 Comments

Predicting Pride

Starting from tomorrow, Tbilisi Pride will be holding a series of events as a political statement in favor of LGBTQ+ rights.  The struggle for recognition and protection of LGBTQ+ Georgians has been going on for quite some time, with the first major milestone being an IDAHO demonstration on May 17th, 2012, and the most recent, perhaps, being the screening of “And Then We Danced” in November 2019.

The political landscape around this issue has changed significantly, but one thing has been constant: every LGBTQ+ demonstration so far has provoked counter-demonstrations from “traditionalist” Georgians intent on disrupting the rallies by any means necessary, including violence.  Many observers are predicting that this week’s events will be no different.  The open questions are how far the counter-protesters will go this time, and whether the police will do their jobs and protect public safety like they did in November 2019, or fall apart like a clump of wet toilet paper like they have done during most of the other LGBTQ+ events.

Obviously anything can happen in such a volatile environment but I think it’s useful to look back at a little bit of the history and also consider the context a little bit and them perhaps we can make a reasonable prediction.  This may be useful to anyone who is considering attending any of the Pride events but who may be concerned about personal safety (I’m assuming none of my readers are considering attending the counter-protests, but if you are, shame on you).

When I first came to Georgia I was told that there were no gays in Georgia.  I don’t think anyone seriously thinks this anymore, but the attitude can still be found in reactionary claims that LGBTQ+ rights protests are the manifestation of some kind of Western anti-Georgian conspiracy rather than the genuine self-expression of genuine Georgians.  This narrative is so pervasive on the Georgian right that there are even Westerners who will argue that Westerners should stay away from Pride events in order to avoid feeding into it.

This argument is not without merit – Georgians are indeed very defensive about being told how to run their country by foreigners – and a Pride event in which foreigners constituted a significant presence might indeed provoke more backlash than sympathy.  On the other hand, I don’t know that surrendering the framing of this issue to the opposition is a good strategy.  Letting the enemy decide who gets to be your ally doesn’t seem that wise or sustainable.  Also, foreign advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights in Georgia – in particular, statements of support from the EU and other countries – seems like it may be a net positive, and it could be helpful to let our governments know where we stand on these issues if we as foreigners physically stand with local activists during Pride week.  Personally, I have generally avoided getting directly involved in local politics because I am sensitive to criticisms of Western imperialism, but I respect others who do get more directly involved.

In any case, the “no gays in Georgia” trope was still fairly strong on May 17th 2012, when a group of thugs busted up a peaceful march for what was then the International Day against Homophobia (they’ve since changed their name numerous times to be more inclusive).  I covered that in my blog although my response was… let’s say emotional.  Full of f-bombs and broader, more general lamentations about the state of the world.  The next day, I actually violated my aforementioned precept and attended a counter-counter-demonstration, which was protesting the violence against the IDAHO activists.  That was honestly terrifying, because I was there with my wife, who was pregnant with my son at the time – but she wanted to go, and this is her country, and it’s an important cause.  So, there we were.

The next year’s IDAHO event was the big one – May 17th, 2013.  Thousands of Georgians gathered to oppose a tiny group of young LGBTQ+ activists.  It was brutal.  For those who were there, it was terrifying.  My Georgian friends were dismayed and despondent.  I had a different take.  For me, this looked like Georgia’s Stonewall – a turning point in the struggle for visibility, after which the matter could no longer be swept under the rug.  I think the news images of grown men attacking young women moved even Georgians who would not normally be allies to the LGBTQ+ movement.  These images spread all around the world.  Georgia was shamed on the world stage.  The bullies showed themselves for who they really were, for all to see, and suddenly the two sides were undeniable.  Also, there was Call of Taburetka – the ultimate in “you had to be there”, which confused Western activists, but ultimately was one of many parodies of the priest who picked up a stool to use as an improvised weapon against the peaceful demonstrators.

In 2014, the Georgian Orthodox Church, apparently cognizant that sending its representatives to snatch stools up off the street and beat up young women on international news was not a good look, decided to rehabilitate its image somewhat by declaring May 17th “Family Purity Day”.  This gave them a pretext to occupy the spaces which would have been used for the IDAHO demonstration, thus pre-empting it.  Identoba, Georgia’s LGBTQ+ NGO at the time, held a few small, secretive, guerilla events, and largely stayed out of public.  In 2015 they had an in-person rally which took place at a location which was not made public until after it had already started (IIRC it was Round Garden).  That year I commemorated the date with a post about why homophobia might be so persistent in Georgia.

2016 passed without violence – my favorite part of this article is the giant rainbow stool calling back to the 2013 rally.  In 2017, police escorted demonstrators to a special protected area to hold their rally while Family Purity Day raged on in the public eye, again occupying the symbolic center of Tbilisi and excluding LGBTQ+ demonstrators from exercising their rights.  But this co-existence – with the LGBTQ+ activists relegated to the position of second-class citizens – was apparently still not good enough for Georgia’s religious brute squad, who stepped up their rhetoric to the point where the 2018 IDAHOTB demonstration had to be canceled entirely.  I found myself having to explain how driving LGBTQ+ activists out of the public square using threats and intimidation backed by a historical precedent of physical assaults was clearly violence, despite dressing it up in a cutesy Orwellian name like “Family Purity Day”.

In 2019, the LGBTQ+ community ceded May 17th to the brute squads – with the exception of a single rainbow flag flown on a bridge – and opted to do a Pride event in June instead.  International human rights organizations stepped up pressure on the Georgian government, which responded by publicly declaring itself incompetent to provide security to its own citizens despite that being the most basic and fundamental duty of government upon which the very concept of civilized society rests.  Some Pride events were held, but the main demonstration was delayed and ultimately canceled due in part to threats of violence from the brute squads and in part to unrelated protests taking up public space and the public eye.  Eventually they did manage to hold a small, impromptu march.

Later that year, in November, the movie “And Then We Danced” screened in Tbilisi.  This time, the police actually did their jobs, and even made arrests!  As I said, I consider this a major milestone – for national and international recognition of a film depicting a homosexual relationship in Georgia, and also for the Georgian government actually mobilizing enough force to protect all the regular people who just wanted to live their lives in peace without being assaulted by a brute squad.  This, more than anything, is what gives me hope that the upcoming Pride events this week might actually proceed according to plan.

But anyway, back to the history.  Where were we?  Let’s see, November 2019…

Oh, yeah.  Then a plague happened.

And that more or less brings us to the present.  Georgia’s Pride Week is all over the news, with Georgian politicians commenting on it on major media outlets, and with members of the European Parliament issuing a statement reminding the Georgian government of its obligations under international agreements to protect the human rights of freedom of speech and assembly.   The Patriarchate issued a statement full of stupid lies, to the surprise of no one.  Some dude who apparently used to play football or something told the press he can’t recall any cases where anyone’s freedom of expression was ever restricted in Georgia, despite having been Mayor of Tbilisi since 2017, which meant that he literally presided over at least two of the occasions when Tbilisi’s Pride/IDAHOTB events couldn’t be held due to threats of violence – a statement which surprised me, since I thought it was only American football players that had a problem with head trauma.  The UN, EU, and a laundry list of Western embassies issued a joint statement calling on Georgia to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ people to assemble.  Let’s just say, despite Kaladze’s amnesia and the general feigned ignorance of Georgian politicians about the actual facts of the matter, it’s going to be very hard for Georgia to allow Pride to be bullied out of the public square yet again this year without earning international condemnation.

I have no illusions about how much that actually matters.  The EU isn’t going to pull Georgia’s association agreement because of a misstep, and the US isn’t going to pull foreign aid.  There’s a lot of realpolitik involved that means that Western states can put a certain amount of soft power pressure on countries like Georgia but aren’t likely to expend political capital over minor lapses in protections of human rights.  And everyone involved in global politics knows that a regime’s first, most fundamental directive is to maintain its own internal legitimacy – in other words, the government is accountable to the people of Georgia before it’s accountable to the embassies of the EU.

But still – the government knows exactly what to expect.  They’ve proven they have the capacity to guard public events in the face of opposition from the brute squads.  They’re on notice from all of their international allies.  And there are a lot of domestic political factors that mean they can’t allow this to become another international embarrassment like 2013  with pictures of old men beating up little girls with stools.  There’s a lot of pressure on them to get this one right.

There’s another dimension to this, which is that one of the brute squad leaders – Levan Vasadze – is out of town.  Apparently he’s in Turkey for unspecified medical treatment – latest source says he’s now headed to Moscow for possible heart surgery; I’m assuming they’re going to implant one – but I’ve also heard a rumor that the government told him to leave town or be arrested.  Vasadze has already publicly committed crimes that he should have been prosecuted for under Georgian law so that’s not outside the realm of possibility, but it also kind of sounds like a conspiracy theory.  Anyway, he apparently regrets that he can’t be here to lead the pogroms himself, but hopefully he’ll be back in time to visit his comrades in jail.

And that brings me to my predictions.

  1. The police will be present for, and attempt to protect, the three planned Pride events, if those events take place: 95%.  Experience tells us that the Tbilisi Pride organizers are organizing these events in consultation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the MIA has, in the past, made public announcements in cases where the police didn’t intend to show up.  So far no one has made any indication that the police will not be there, so I think they will.
  2. The police will succeed in protecting the Pride events they are present for: 10%.  I’d rate this at significantly less likely.  I’d rate the police as failing to protect the events if the events need to be canceled, or ended early, or moved, or if demonstrators/participants are injured.  Therefore, I’d say 10%.  Even when the police have shown up in the past, they’ve almost never managed to provide enough protection to allow the Pride/IDAHOTB events to go on as planned, and they’ve almost never managed to prevent at least some violence from the counter-protesters.
  3. All three Pride events will go on as scheduled: 30%.  I have a very low confidence for this prediction.  I think the first two – the screening, and the Pride fest – might be able to go off as planned, just as previous pride events have managed to be held as long as they weren’t in major public spaces.  But the March for Honor?  Starting at the Rustaveli Metro?  The time and location are public, which means it will be all too easy for the brute squad to mobilize in advance and prevent the March from reaching the demonstration site at all.  The police are unlikely to seize the area in advance on behalf of the demonstrators.  Tbilisi Pride are experienced enough that they almost certainly recognize this likelihood, and I assume they have some kind of backup plan.  The thing is, their backup plan might be “try and fail to hold the event and use the failure to gain international sympathy and shame the regime”.  Alternatively, they have some kind of secret, secondary location.  Do the homophobes figure this out and occupy the secondary location?  Now I’m several layers deep into theoretical strategizing, which isn’t a good place to be for making forecasts.  Another possibility is that threats of violence escalate and the organizers cancel – or threats manifest at Pride Fest or the film screening and the organizers cancel.  I’m just not at all confident that the March of Honor can happen at the time and location specified.
  4. Someone will get seriously injured: 20%.  A serious injury is loss of life or limb, let’s say.  Losing an eye or getting some kind of other serious organ damage would also count.  As far as I know, none of the LGBTQ+ events or their counter-events have resulted in serious injury, but notably the 2019 anti-Russian protests did (rubber bullets caused serious injuries), as did some government protests in 2011.  I think police overreaction is more likely to cause serious injury than protesters or even counter-protesters, but I can’t rule out counter-protesters breaking through and severely assaulting activists either.  There’s also an outside chance for a Charlottesville type attack on the activists.  That said, most of the time, protests in Georgia don’t end in serious injury.
  5. At least one counter-protester will be arrested: 80%.  There were at least 28 arrests stemming from the November film screening protests.  Some other demonstrations saw a few arrests – I seem to recall four arrests being made stemming from the 2013 counter-protests, for example.  I think it’s very likely that some of the counter-protesters will attempt violence and give the police reason to arrest them; I think it’s fairly likely that the police will follow through at least once, given the international scrutiny and the fact that the most recent relevant event included many arrests.

These predictions are all fairly conservative, in the sense that they are generally based on the historical baseline story, which goes: activists show up, police show up and try to protect them, but fail, the rallies are disrupted and/or canceled and although there are some minor and moderate injuries, no one is seriously injured.  But there’s no guarantee that next week will follow the historical pattern.  In particular, I’d be worried about serious injury; a one in five chance of being at a rally where the police end up using overzealous crowd control measures is a bit outside of my comfort zone, but I worry that some people might take it as reassuring and go and then get injured.  So I would strongly urge everyone not to take my advice or rely on my predictions for decisionmaking.

That said, given that my predictions come mostly true, what kinds of outcomes are we looking at?

I think the government is going to take some heat no matter what.  The high likelihood of either police failure to protect the demonstrators, or police overreaction, or the March having to be canceled/moved due to counter-protesters, or more than one of the above, leaves the state open to significant criticism from liberals and the international community.  I think they probably realize that, which is one reason why they’ve been trying to discourage the events.  The other reason is that Pride is politically unpopular, which means if the government does guarantee the rights of the LGBTQ+ activists successfully, they’re going to face criticism from the Church and its affiliated brute squads.  But sadly I think the most likely event is that they both try and fail to protect the protests which means I think they end up facing criticism from both sides.

I think it’s more likely than not that Pride Fest has at least partial success and ends up benefitting the LGBTQ+ community in terms of morale.  I’m not registering this as an official prediction since morale is hard to measure.  I think long-term, holding events like this that increase visibility is good and will be one of the main contributors to long-term victory in the culture war, which is what I think really matters in the long term.  I’m not putting a number on this one either for the same reason as above – “winning the culture war” is too vague a goal with no set timeline.  Still, I think it will happen, eventually, and this will help.  Medium term, I think that support for LGBTQ+ rights will rise, slowly, as the public sees more and more brutality from the blackskirts and their friends, and more and more humanity from the LGBTQ+ activists and their allies.

So ultimately, I guess I’m mostly optimistic.  The whole point of public assembly is visibility for a cause, and Pride has already achieved that visibility, nationally and internationally.  The only thing that worries me is the chance of someone getting hurt.

***************************************************************

Disclaimer: Please note that I am creating these predictions in an effort to improve my mental model of the world, and not to inform policy or decision-making by others.  Also, comments on this blog are moderated and any comments calling into question the validity, humanity, or human rights of LGBTQ+ people will be deleted without notice or regret.  However, please feel free to tell me if you think my predictions are wrong, and give me your own numbers and your own reasons if you feel so inclined.

Posted in Forecasting, Politics | Leave a comment

Getting Settled in Kutaisi, Again

My place in Kutaisi isn’t far from Chavchavadze, which is one of the main drags in the city and the home of numerous varied shops and a large bazaar.  It’s also not too too far from the “city center”, which isn’t so much the center of the city as it is the focal point for tourism, such as it is here.  The city center has a decent mall, another large bazaar, and some restaurants and cafes.  I’ve walked to and from the city center, but it’s just far enough that it goes from “pleasant stroll” to “annoying chore” and I usually end up taking public transport.

I was thinking about this on the way to Kutaisi and I realized I should just buy a bike.  So I did.

I went to “Evro Velosipedebi’s Maghazia” (Euro Bicycle Shop) on Asatiani street – I took a bus, which is where I first encountered the unmasked bus passengers I mentioned in my last corona post.  They let me test drive the used bikes until I found one that was cheap and comfortable.  I also picked out a helmet, chain, and front and back light.  The gear shifts needed adjustment and they offered to do it for me, if I came back in an hour.

I decided to walk to the city center (it’s not far from the bike shop).  I stopped by Grishashvili street but I couldn’t find my little coffee shop that I used to buy coffee from – not incredibly surprising, since a boutique store that sells expensive coffee isn’t the ideal business model for a small, mostly poor city, and also it’s been eight years.  I walked over the White Bridge, past the cafe where my wife and I had our first date in Kutaisi, and then I was in the center.

I thought I might try Bikentia’s but when I went in it just looked deeply unappealing.  It’s this narrow little shop – more like a hall – with stands where you can eat the food that you’ve ordered from the large surly man behind the counter.  I know looks can be deceiving and Bikentia’s is supposed to be the best kebab in Kutaisi but I just couldn’t bring myself to stay there.  Maybe I’ll order takeout one day.  Also, I’ve previously established that m taste differs from local tastes, so I’m not guaranteed to like the food anyway… but I can’t live in Kutaisi without trying Bikentia’s.

I wandered around the center and found a coffee shop down the street from my favorite shaurma place.  The coffee was terrible.  The shaurma place was gone.  I promise this post isn’t all negative… just bear with me through the next part and we’ll get to the good stuff.

I found myself in front of Gochit’s – which has apparently expanded from Tbilisi – and thought I’d give it a shot, despite them being among the 194 restaurants that ended up protesting covid safety measures (looking back, Bikentia did as well – I’m realizing it may not be feasible to keep track of 194 restaurants to boycott…).  I’ll say this: even if you don’t boycott Gochit’s because of their covid stance, you should boycott them because their food is terrible.  I went in wanting to support local business, and I left wishing I’d just gone to Wendy’s instead.

The burgers were gamey and didn’t even taste particularly good – and it’s hard to get a burger to taste bad, so that’s actually kind of impressive.  The bun disintegrated, making me glad that I’d opted to eat using the gloves they offered me.  This is the second time in Georgia I’ve been served gloves with my burger and both times the burger has sucked.  Is that a coincidence or are gloves an actual hallmark of an incompetent burger design?  Normally I’d be up for a thorough investigation of anything burger-related, but finding out if every burger served with gloves is in fact disgusting seems like an awful way to spend my time.  Also the fries were undercooked and tasted bad, like the fry oil they used was sour or rancid or something.

I left Gochit’s and headed back toward the bike shop.  They called me on my way to tell me the bike was ready.  They ended up giving me a free pump and free wheel reflectors.  I rode home and the shifting issue hadn’t been adequately solved, which is fine.  I look forward to adjusting everything to my liking once I bring my tools from Tbilisi.  I actually enjoy performing bicycle maintenance.  When I got home I stood my new used bike up on its back wheel to fit it into the elevator, and the back wheel came off the frame – turns out it needed to be tightened.  Like I said, I enjoy doing this stuff.

The other benefit of buying a bike which is an obvious fixer-upper is that it makes me less of a target for thieves.  I had a brand-new bike stolen off me when I was a kid (maybe about 12) in New York and I haven’t forgotten the experience of my first and only mugging.  Georgia in 2021 is probably a bit safer in general than New York City in 1993 but I still don’t want to stand out, since people will already peg me for a “rich” foreigner.  If I have to lock this bike up to a streetlight or something while I stop in a store, it will probably still be there when I get back.  It doesn’t look new, but it rides well (except for the shifting issues and a bit of chain slippage – again, I’ll do some adjustments) and is very comfortable.

The next day I decided to go shopping for a new desk – my desk in Tbilisi belongs to the landlady – and also to check out the public pool on my street.  The pool was nice – it’s actually two outdoor pools plus a kid’s sprinkler area, and an indoor pool.  They have lessons and membership is quite affordable.  There were lifeguards on duty and it was well-attended but not crowded.  I’m definitely going to join this pool in a couple of weeks when I’m fully moved-in here.  I’d join now but I have to be back in Tbilisi on Thursday and then I won’t be back here until July 16th at the earliest.  Also the pool security guy complimented me on my Georgian.  By the way, all of the interactions in this post took place entirely in Georgian with the exception of the woman at the counter at Gochit’s who spoke to me in English even though I spoke to her in Georgian.  That’s partly a brag and partly a reminder that you generally need Georgian to get things done in Kutaisi.

The desk was a bit of a challenge to find, but perseverance paid off.  I started at the big furniture mall across from the Chavchavadze bazaar and found a computer desk that was not only too small for me, but would have been too small for my eight-year-old son.  I asked if they had a bigger desk and the woman said they didn’t have anything bigger, but also said that no one would have anything bigger.  I assume she was trying to sell me the desk, but I was worried she might be right.

Still, I visited every furniture store on Chavchavadze until I got down to what I think of as “the highway” because it’s the street that heads south out of the city and into Kvitiri (where I had my one semester of real-deal village teaching) and eventually to Kutaisi’s airport.  There’s also some kind of underpass/overpass system there that is not very pedestrian-friendly.  It’s the end of what I regard as the walkable part of Chavchavadze.  And at that intersection is a little furniture shop called “aveji’s saloni di-ti” (DT furniture salon) where they sell computer desks that are sized for human-sized humans and have keyboard trays that can fit keyboard-sized keyboards with room left over for a mouse on the side.  I chose a nice desk that matches my furniture, more or less, and only cost 240 lari, which is about $76 US at time of writing.  It has three big drawers where I can keep papers or whatever.  In practice at least one of these will become my junk drawer.

I was going to have the desk delivered, but my wife wanted to take a look at it to make sure it was a good color (it was) so I headed home instead and we ended up putting off getting the desk for a few days.  Today, at the appointed hour, we went downstairs to hail a taxi (I would have walked again but we were in a bit of a hurry) and by coincidence we ran into a taxi driver who is also a family friend, and who used to drive me to Kvitiri every morning during that aforementioned one semester of real-deal village teaching.  Our driver had upgraded from the small Opel Astra he had eight years ago to a somewhat larger hatchback and it transpired that the desk fit into it, so rather than get the delivery service we just brought it home ourselves.

It’s nice getting reacquainted with this place – seeing old friends, finding bits and pieces of local lore (like where to buy human-sized desks, or which coffee shops to avoid) – even when I went to my local shop and the shopkeeper asked me why my Georgian hadn’t improved in all this time, it was at least nice to be remembered (I just muttered “rtuli enaa” which means “it’s a difficult language” and they let me off the hook).  Enough has changed to make it interesting.  There’s a new bakery in front of my building that does a good penovani.  They renovated the school where I used to teach, apparently with a grant from the Millennium Challenge Fund.  They retiled our entrance hall in our building.  Did I mention there’s a Wendy’s now?

There’s also Glovo and Wolt – two food and grocery delivery apps – and Bolt – a taxi app.  There’s a Europroduct and several Spars.  I imagine I will never again have to travel to Batumi to buy Tabasco sauce.  Our neighbor stopped by the other day with some glass noodles and tofu in soy sauce, which she had made with foods from the aforementioned Europroduct.  Kutaisi is way more cosmopolitan than it was in 2013.

But in one important way, the city hasn’t changed.  Our neighborhood is an actual community.  People know each other.  There are tons of kids around for my kids to play with, and tons of adults around, who we know, who keep an eye on the kids.  In all the time I lived in Tbilisi, I never felt that sense of community.  It was my biggest complaint about living there, actually.  One of the major factors in our decision to move here was that we wanted our kids to have more socialization, and they’re getting it.  They’re out every day playing with other kids.  It’s fantastic.

As for me – despite the disparaging remark from the gruff shopkeeper, my Georgian actually has improved a lot and I’m finding it easier and more pleasant to socialize with at least some of my neighbors.  But also, online socialization is so much more robust now, due to the pandemic, and my online social routine is virtually uninterrupted since I’ve come here.  But that’s neither here nor there… literally.

Remember when I used to end my posts with youtube videos?  Let’s do one of those again. This video is totally unrelated to anything in this post, except for the fact that my neighbors in Kutaisi likely heard me playing it at volume this evening.  It’s a jazz fusion piece which I have on heavy rotation lately, because it is frickin awesome.  Give it a listen.

[video: Lingus, by Snarky Puppy]

Posted in Awesome, Changes, Restaurant Reviews, Travel | Leave a comment

Coronavirus in Tbilisi – June 27th, 2021

Numbers

2750 cases in Tbilisi this week – that’s down, ever-so-slightly, from 2776 last week.  For next week the model predicts 2864 cases (2234 – 3494) in Tbilisi.

4641 cases nationwide, down more significantly from 4916.  The share of cases in Tbilisi is up again, from 56.5 to 59.3.  For next week, my model predicts 4381 cases (3417 – 5345) nationwide.

199512 tests this week, up a bit from 184796.  Positive test rate for the week is 2.33%

Dire Warnings of Doom

I admit that since getting my vaccinations I haven’t been focused as much on coronavirus and I’ve mostly just been passively noticing headlines.  Still, I can’t help but notice that people are raising the alarm about the Delta variant.  The WHO says that even vaccinated people should continue with precautions, including masks.  Israel has reintroduced its indoor mask mandate in response to a surge in Delta cases there – and per the above article, half of the infected adults had been fully vaccinated with Pfizer.

Vaccination is extremely effective at preventing serious illness and death, but what we’re seeing now is that vaccinated people may be a significant factor in community transmission.  In other words, if you’re vaccinated, you’re very likely safe, but the unvaccinated people in your community (or household) are not necessarily safe from catching covid from you if you get it.

And of course in countries with a very low vaccination rate – like Georgia – the danger is much more pronounced.

Georgia has taken further steps towards easing restrictions.  If you’re here, I’m sure you’ve noticed that masks are no longer required outdoors (a good step) and the curfew will be ending on July 1st (probably not that big a deal given it’s already at 11pm, and restaurants still need to close by midnight – in effect we’re getting a 1 hour extension).  I understand that people are tired of being under curfew and mask mandates.  I’m tired of being under curfew and mask mandates.  But when even countries with high vaccination rates, like Israel, are putting restrictions back in place, I feel like it’s only a matter of time before Georgia has to reimpose its own restrictions.

Or not.  We’re apparently willing to accept being on this plateau of 4000 – 5000 cases per week indefinitely.  Maybe we’ll be willing to accept any number of cases rather than go back to restrictions.  But Delta will be taking over as the dominant strain the next 2 months or so and that’s almost certainly going to produce another surge in cases – probably bigger than the third wave, but hopefully smaller than the second.  So I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the restrictions make an encore performance in August or September.

So like… I recommend that you all take the maximum possible enjoyment out of this brief summer respite – while still being reasonably cautious about safety – because we’re probably not actually out of the woods yet.

Coronavirus in Kutaisi

I’ve been in Kutaisi for a few days.  Most people aren’t masking at all.  On buses and marshutkas maybe about half to three quarters of people are masked.  These spaces are crowded and poorly-ventilated; if I hadn’t been vaccinated I wouldn’t set foot in a bus in Kutaisi, and as it is I wear my mask.  These are prime conditions for transmission.

It makes me wonder how many people here have already had covid.  Most of my neighbors here have had it.  My wife says that “all Kutaisi” has had it.  That’s not entirely unbelievable.  I haven’t heard of any seroprevalence testing done nationwide – only in Tbilisi – and we can’t assume that Tbilisi is representative of the whole country.  Death rates, case rates, excess mortality rates, and sample PCR/antigen testing (e.g. from schools and clinics) all line up and all support the idea that Georgia is doing reasonably well of keeping track of who has covid – reliably catching 30-50% of cases, which is obviously not perfect but no worse than many rich countries.  None of this supports the idea of a massive invisible outbreak in Imereti.

Still, if you look at the studies in Tbilisi, it looks like about a third of Georgian adults have had covid.  Who knows how many kids have had it undetected – it could be a third or more.  If it turns out that 40% or 50% or even 60% of people in Imereti – in most regions of Georgia outside the capital – have already had covid, that could explain why the share of cases in the regions is decreasing and the share of cases in Tbilisi is increasing.  The regions could just be closer to herd immunity – not close enough to stop transmissions, but perhaps close enough to slow them.  And just based on the behavior that I’ve observed, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if 60% of people in Kutaisi had already contracted covid.

On the other hand, there may be regional factors in Kutaisi and elsewhere that change infection dynamics.  For one thing, it’s been much cooler here – maybe people are more likely to leave windows open for ventilation, or go to outdoor bars/restaurants.  For another, population density is lower.  There may also be cultural factors at play, although I don’t know if they would, in total, cause higher or lower infection risk here.  I’ve only spent about a year in Kutaisi in total, and I’m not comfortable making strong generalizations about habits and customs here vs. in Tbilisi.

Vaccine Shenanigans

I heard through the grapevine that people who got their first dose of AZ in Georgia are now unable to get their second, because the doses aren’t here.  Georgia Today confirms and adds that Gamkrelidze says the country is expecting a million doses to arrive in two weeks.

In other news, I have also heard some rumors that a 79% effective vaccine could be less effective than a 95% effective vaccine.  Probably further research will be needed to confirm this, but for now I think we can say that you might expect 79 to be lower than 95, in most cases.

In case the groundbreaking information in that previous paragraph was already known to you, you could probably skip the New York Times reporting on outbreaks in countries where the Chinese vaccines have been administered.  There’s a certain air of smugness about a paper in the world’s richest country lamenting the fact that Mongolia went with Sinopharm rather than waiting for Joe Biden to get around to doling out America’s spare Novavax doses or relying on Covax to deliver AZ vaccines, which are even less effective than Sinopharm, and would only cover up to 20% of the population this year.  Here’s another crazy math fact: 79% is much higher than 0%, which is the efficacy of not getting a vaccine at all.

Yes, if your country has a choice, you choose the most effective vaccines (assuming comparable safety).  Many countries didn’t – and still don’t – have a choice.  Reporting on countries that vaccinated with Sinopharm or even Sinovac as if it’s a moral failing of the countries that lacked access to the 95% effective vaccines is tacky and tone-deaf.  You make the best choice available given the options.  If your options are “reduce mortality among vaccinated people by 85% now with Sinovac” or “don’t reduce mortality at all until we can get Pfizer in two years” you go with Sinovac.  And then the New York Times runs a smarmy headline about how you “relied on Chinese vaccines”.

In other news, why don’t homeless people just buy houses?  The New York Times reports on this perplexing phenomenon.

Also – it’s noteworthy but not surprising that less effective vaccines don’t get you to herd immunity as quickly.  This paper in the Lancet estimates that for an 80% effective vaccine, 75-90% of a population would need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity from the original strain – in other words, to stop the spread of the virus.  No country has vaccinated 75% of its people – the highest I can find is 63% in the Seychelles – and so it is not surprising at all that they are still having outbreaks.  And to stop outbreaks of Delta would require even higher vaccination rates.  Using the formula in that Lancet paper, if Delta has an R0 of 5, you’d need to vaccinate literally everyone to prevent spread with an 80% effective vaccine.  With a 95% effective vaccine, you’d need to vaccinate 85% of the population.  Again, the most any country has vaccinated appears to be under 65%.

Literally no country on earth has vaccinated enough people to achieve herd immunity and prevent outbreaks entirely, and that would still be true even if every dose administered everywhere were as effective as Pfizer.  The focus on “the Chinese vaccines” is therefore entirely unwarranted.  It also conflates Sinopharm and Sinovac, which have very different efficacy numbers, and ignores the similar efficacy of AZ and Sinopharm, or the low efficacy of J&J.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Western media is participating in this Cold War-style vaccine nationalism project, trying to discredit the “Chinese vaccines” in an effort to counter the vaccine diplomacy that China is trying to engage in.  And normally, I’d call it fair play, since the state-controlled Chinese media is probably doing similar things but in reverse.  But in this case you’re talking about a campaign to get national decision-makers in developing countries to hold off on vaccinating their populations at all rather than opt for a Chinese vaccine, and to the extent that this campaign is effective, it’s going to kill people.

And to bring this back around to the Georgian context – there’s a lot of vaccine hesitancy in Georgia, and if someone in Georgia reads the NY Times article and decides to wait around for Pfizer or some other non-Chinese vaccine, they’re taking on additional personal risk, and we can’t take it for granted that someone else will step up and take that vaccine dose instead – it might just sit on a shelf, instead of saving a life.  News that fuels vaccine skepticism for no reason can actually delay a country’s entire vaccination campaign.  It can actually delay the time when we can actually put covid behind us once and for all.

It’s important to remember, if you’re reading coronavirus coverage from a media outlet like the New York Times – a source that is “respectable” largely because it is a reliable mouthpiece for Western hegemony – that no matter how scary the clickbait headlines are, a 79% effective vaccine is exactly as effective today as it was yesterday.  The science didn’t change, and the math didn’t change – all that happened was that a hacky media company saw a chance to make money by playing politics with people’s lives, and took that chance, the same way they always do.

So again, I urge everyone who can to get vaccinated as soon as you can, and I reiterate that Sinopharm is a good option.  On the other hand, if you’re reading this you probably have access, or will soon have access, to better options than Sinovac, and I wouldn’t recommend Sinovac if something better is available to you.

Numbers courtesy of stopcov.ge, ncdc.ge, and 1tv.ge, unless otherwise noted.  Stay healthy!

 

Posted in Health and Sickness in Georgia | 1 Comment

On Transitioning to Remote Work

It feels a little odd to be writing a personal post again after about a year of posting almost exclusively about coronavirus.  Of course, this post is tangentially related to coronavirus, since the pandemic is what finally everything into a place where I decided to pursue remote work.  Anyway, I want to say a few things about my decision to transition to remote work and what my plans are for the next year or so.

Embracing the Trend

First, the obvious: I am not alone in making this decision.  I’m sure whichever newspaper you read – for me it’s the Washington Post – is running articles about how many workers are embracing remote work or reevaluating their old jobs and deciding not to go back.  I’m part of a trend, apparently.

Some of my reasons are similar to others’ reasons.  I liked working from home.  I liked the convenience, the flexibility, and the lower stress.

Others are perhaps unique to me and my job: for one, I liked having easy access to a kitchen.  It’s part of what allowed me to adopt a meal schedule that helped me lose 30kg (66 lbs) in five months, from October to February, and then maintain my new lower, healthier weight since then.  I’ve also been eating healthier meals, with more vegetables and fewer grains and starches.

I liked remote teaching.  Classroom management was always the most difficult and least rewarding part of being a teacher.  Over the eleven years that I taught in classrooms I became much better at it, but it was still unpleasant.  On a Zoom call, suddenly I didn’t have to spend time and energy managing a classroom, and I had all that time and energy to just teach my subject, instead.

The downside is that when you aren’t directly managing students, a lot of them will simply drift off.  They’re behind a computer screen and they have complete power to, for example, open up a YouTube video in another tab and watch it during your lesson, without you knowing about it.  I don’t think remote education is actually good for kids – at least, not the way it was done during the pandemic.

However, remote tutoring – one-on-one – seems like a good model.  I have friends here in Tbilisi who teach English online.  That’s one of the things I’m considering trying out as a newly remote worker.

I liked being isolated from the random whims of coworkers and administrators.  I know this sounds petty, but like, if I have to get to a class, and someone stops me in the hall to ask me something, my choices are a) brush the person off, which feels awkward and can be interpreted as rude; b) be late for class, which is unprofessional and causes classroom management problems; c) run around everywhere like a crazy person, which is unprofessional and stressful.  On top of that, my work environment was always a bit unpredictable, and rolling with whatever changes had to happen – a class being moved without warning, say – was never easy for me.  At home, I control my work environment.  No one stops me to ask me things during my work day or my transitions from one Zoom call to the next.  Yes, I have kids, but it turns out you can actually teach kids not to interrupt you when you are at work (which is more than I can say for some adults).

So after about a year of almost exclusively working from home, I decided I just really liked it.  On top of that, next year promises to be another Plague Year, and the “hybrid” teaching model that my school, like many others, adopted – half the class in person, the other half online – was the absolute worst of all possible worlds.  All of the downsides of in-person and online teaching put together with none of the upsides of either.  I don’t even want to get into it – maybe I’ll do a separate post on online/pandemic teaching models some other time; I have a lot to say and it’s not all directly relevant to this post.  Suffice it to say, it’s horrible.

Remote in Georgia

Second, I have a general impression that Georgia is a good country in which to be a remote worker.  I have several friends who work remotely, some of whom would call themselves “digital nomads” – people who work remotely while traveling the world.  Georgia offers tax incentives (apparently there’s a 1% tax rate on some types of freelancers – I’m no expert, but my friends at expathub.ge explain this in great detail).  Getting paid any kind of a foreign salary or even an hourly rate in dollars puts you at a great advantage and you (well, if you are an educated native English speaker) can live very, very comfortably in Georgia at prevailing freelance rates.

I’m not 100% sold on freelancing as a career – we’ll see how it goes.  I might transition back to in-person teaching after the pandemic is over.  I have this shiny Master of Education degree that I don’t want to see go to waste.  In addition to freelance gigs, I’m also looking at some curriculum development or consultancy jobs.  Several people have suggested that I put my research and analysis skills to use in an actual paid gig, and I’m also looking into options for how I might convince someone to pay me to do things like my coronavirus analysis.

However, in the past I’ve done some freelance journalism, freelance copyediting, and freelance web development, and I’ve generally enjoyed it all.  My biggest problem right now will be narrowing down my options and choosing what to focus my energy on.  That seems like a good problem to have.

I should be clear that I’m not signing up for the Georgian government’s “Remote in Georgia” program, which relates to getting visas or something like that.  I’m already a lawful permanent resident, and in a few years I’ll be eligible to apply for citizenship based on my duration of legal residence, which I plan to do.  However, if any readers are thinking about working remotely in Georgia, or signing up for that program in particular, I’d say it seems like a good plan.

Moving to Kutaisi

Long-time readers may recall that I lived in Kutaisi during the 2012 – 2013 school year.  That’s where my son was born.  My wife has an apartment there, which has been sitting empty for the last eight years.  Since we no longer need to be in Tbilisi, we’re planning to move back to Kutaisi.  My kids have friends and family there – it’s their “village”, to put it in Georgian terms – and my wife and I both agree that the kids need to spend more time socializing and getting to know their extended family.

I rather enjoyed living in Kutaisi the last time around, and only moved to Tbilisi for the money.  That said, I now have several good friends here, who I will miss seeing.  I imagine I’ll visit frequently, plus there’s always online.

If I continue to enjoy living in Kutaisi, I am considering setting up a small business there after the pandemic.  Maybe a learning center where I can do after-school coding lessons for kids, and vocational training for adults.  I hear the real money is in test prep, so maybe I could start with a bit of that as well.  Maybe explore blended or hybrid teaching models that aren’t terrible.  Of course, what Kutaisi really needs is a taco stand, but the restaurant industry isn’t necessarily stable; maybe I’ll do it when the kids go to college.  The future is wide open.

Anyway, that’s my personal update.

Incidentally, I’ve written a 3000-word post about freedom of speech, misinformation, and cancel culture.  I’m debating whether to post it here, as it’s sort of off-topic for this blog, but it just goes to show – I’ve been out of my job for literally three days and I’ve already written three full-length blog posts.  A veritable word tsunami.   Who knows – I might actually become a blogger again!

Posted in Changes | 3 Comments

Coronavirus in Tbilisi – June 20th, 2021

The headline this week is that cases are on the rise again, contrary to the trend established over the previous four weeks.  I’ll talk about why this summer might not go as well as I’d hoped and why predictions based solely on single factors like weather, or variants, or policy, so often go wrong.  But first, numbers.

Numbers

2776 cases in Tbilisi this week, up from 2656 last week.  This is well within the margin of error of my model (prediction: 2571 cases, with margin of error: 2005 – 3136) and yet still somewhat surprising as I had expected numbers to go down slightly rather than go up slightly, on the basis of that aforementioned 4-week trend.

Nationwide, we had 4916 cases, up from 4867.  My model had predicted 4311 (3363 – 5259), so again, this outcome is disappointing, if not terribly shocking.

Nationwide testing dropped from 212796 to 184796.  Positive test rate is up from 2.29% to 2.66%.

The share of cases in Tbilisi has increased again, from 54.6% to 56.5%.

My models project 2831 (2208 – 3454) cases in Tbilisi next week, and 4965 (3873 – 6058) cases nationwide.

Summertime, and Predicting’s Not Easy

There’s been an open question as to whether the weather would reduce transmission.  This is a much less straightforward question than it seems, because it can be difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle changes in circumstance from the accompanying changes in human behavior.

Suppose that the physical effects of warm weather (changes in temperature, humidity, direct sunlight) decrease covid transmission by 5%. The behavioral effects of warm weather (people going outside more, opening windows, etc.) decrease transmission by another 5%. But then you tell everyone “hey, it’s summer, you can all relax now!” and they do, and that increases transmission by 20%. Here you have a net increase in transmission of 10%, which can in some sense be said to be “because” of warm weather.

The point is, what looks like a single factor (change in season, imposition of a policy, etc.) often has direct, indirect, and second-order indirect effects. There is a feedback system in which people adjust their behaviors and risk tolerance to compensate for changes in circumstance, and the total effect from the change in circumstance plus the change in behavior is not easy to predict in either magnitude or direction.

To add to the confusion, the very act of predicting the impacts of changing circumstances can influence how people react and in turn can change the outcomes. If you scare everyone by predicting a huge Easter bump they might all take voluntary precautions that mitigates the bump. If you get everyone to relax by touting the benefits of summer weather they might all stop taking precautions and usher in an early fourth wave. Prediction in a pandemic can become a self-defeating project.

And to compound things even more, a public health official might notice this and conclude that if you want everyone to take precautions all the time the best thing to do is to always predict disaster no matter what. The problem is that this also produces a backlash in which the public loses faith in predictions of disaster which in turn blunts the effect of the predictions, which means that when an actual disaster is imminent the feedback system no longer works at top efficiency.

All of this makes prediction very, very hard, because there are at least three levels of variables – there are physical circumstances caused by changes in the environment or policy, behavioral responses to these changes, and changes in behavioral responses over time based on people’s perception of the impact of previous behavioral responses. As a result, I’m left feeling like every time I’ve learned something about the public response to the pandemic, the lesson is already obsolete by the time I’m ready to apply it.

I’m very tempted to tell a “just so” story about the weather and its impact on coronavirus numbers in Georgia.  Here’s one: cases decreased every week from May 9th to June 13th because the weather suddenly got really nice and people started doing all their gatherings outdoors where it was safer or at least opening their windows and getting some ventilation.  Then it got really hot and people moved everything back indoors so they could have air conditioning, and suddenly ventilation was terrible again and numbers went back up.

Is that story actually true, though?  I have no idea.  I mean, personally, for me, that more or less describes my behavior.  I went out to outdoor cafes and events a lot in late May and early June and kept my windows open in my apartment.  Then for the last two weeks I’ve mostly sat in air conditioned spaces with windows closed.  So it certainly sounds plausible.  But it’s also plausible that people have started doing many more gatherings, and even though each individual gathering is safer because it’s outdoors, the net effect of all the gatherings is still an increase in absolute transmission risk.

It’s also possible that this has nothing to do with weather at all, and what we’re seeing now is an increase in cases due to the Delta strain.  We have 20 confirmed Delta cases, but there could be 2000 for all we know.

This is the same kind of argument that I’ve had over the impact of curfews, by the way.  Do curfews work?  Who knows?  They seem like they should work, but if people change their behavior to compensate for curfews in ways that increase risk on net then the curfews can actually be counterproductive.  We have no real proof as to which effect is stronger, so it’s down to our intuitions, which are vulnerable to motivated reasoning based on things like political tribes and what policies we’d personally like better.  I maintain that the data we have suggest that curfews do have a net beneficial impact in general, but the data we have are limited and it’s not always 100% clear how to best interpret that data in a way that is applicable to a specific curfew in a specific place.

Anyway, despite the difficulties in prediction that I’ve outlined above, we have to muddle through anyway and make our best guess.  Because cases went up this week, my model of course thinks they’ll go up again next week as well.  But I don’t understand why cases went up this week – again, my candidates are 1) people heading indoors to beat the heat, 2) people taking more risks in response to a perceived lack of danger, and 3) the Delta strain.  If it’s 1), cases will probably keep going up until the weather cools off again.  If it’s 2), cases will probably keep going up until people get scared of how high the case numbers are getting.  If it’s 3), cases will probably keep going up until the government does another lockdown.  In any case, I can’t see things really changing for next week, so I think we’ll see another slight increase in cases.

Delta and the Fourth Wave

Last week I mentioned that experts were saying we’d see the fourth wave in August, and that I thought there was a good chance it would happen in July instead.  Unfortunately there’s a chance that we’re already in the fourth wave, given that the 7-day total in Tbilisi has increased on seven of the last eight days.

After the second wave, we dipped down to about 2000 cases per week, nationally, in March, before numbers started climbing again.  This time we’re at just below 5000 cases per week.  If this is the low point after the third wave, it’s about 2.5 times as high as the low point after the second wave.  That’s bad for the obvious reason – it’s 2.5 times the rate of suffering and death – and for the slightly less obvious reason, which is that it potentially makes the fourth wave that much more dangerous.  We’re much closer to the peak with 5000 new cases per week than we were with only 2000 cases.  Also, if we “get used to” 5000 new cases per week, then 10,000 new cases per week will seem that much less shocking, which in turn will prevent people from taking the needed precautions.

On top of that, Delta is supposed to be about twice as contagious as the UK strain.  It’s hard to say how that will play out, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it isn’t at least as bad as the third wave.

I know I warned everyone that the third wave could be much more dangerous than the second wave, but ultimately it wasn’t.  Now I’m warning that the fourth wave could be much more dangerous than the third.  Hopefully it won’t be.  Hopefully the government will be responsive and people will be responsible and we can keep things from getting too bad.  But as of now, remember that things are already 2.5 times as bad as they were before the third wave.

Before the third wave my concern was that things could escalate very quickly, before people had time to respond.  Now my concern is more that things will escalate very slowly, allowing people to get acclimated to increasing amounts of danger without ever really becoming alarmed.  Because let’s be honest – was the third wave really that bad?  Hospitals never got overwhelmed.  No one was washing groceries or hoarding toilet paper.  Things were mostly kind of normal – or, normal for post-2019 times – even when we topped 10,000 cases/week.  If that happens again in July or August, we could be looking at 200+ covid deaths per week, but everyone just kind of shrugs and lets it happen.

And obviously most of those deaths are going to be unvaccinated people – people who are socially disadvantaged, and/or who hesitated to get vaccinated despite being vulnerable because they fell prey to misinformation.  It’s tragic.

For me personally, I might expect that if the fourth wave comes in July and August, it might subside enough by September that at least my kids will have a somewhat normal educational experience next year.  But I suspect that many schoolchildren will still be masking up, and many classes and schools will still have to shut down because of outbreaks.  I know I keep repeating this, but as a parent it’s on my mind a lot, and it factors into my calculations of what I should do next year about a number of things.  For what it’s worth, Gamkrelidze seems to think that enough vaccines can go out this summer to make schools safe from September.  And who knows – perhaps we’ve all learned to take the coronavirus seriously enough that things won’t be quite as bad as I fear.  Stranger things have happened.

Good luck and good health!

Numbers from stopcov.ge, ncdc.ge, and 1tv.ge.

 

 

Posted in Health and Sickness in Georgia | 1 Comment