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WHO recommendations ‘widely disregarded’ in South Ossetia’s Akhalgori

20 May 2020
Akhalgori. Photo: Tamara Mearakishvili.

Residents of the Akhalgori (Leningor) District of South Ossetia are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic due to widespread disregard of recommendations from the World Health Organisation, the Democracy Research Institute (DRI), a Tbilisi-based human rights organisation has reported.

‘Patients placed in quarantine are free to move around in the hospital building and are systematically using a shared bathroom’, DRI wrote, citing local sources. They said that on several occasions, patients left the quarantine space making it necessary to have security guards in the clinic.

As of 19 May, there are 34 confirmed cases of coronavirus in South Ossetia. In mid-March, South Ossetia started to gradually close down public life; by the end of the month, they introduced a limited lockdown. On 2 April, a day after the first confirmed coronavirus infections in North Ossetia, the authorities announced that they were closing the border with Russia. 

DRI reported that residents of South Ossetia were not observing social distancing guidelines and even though restaurants were closed, ‘in the evenings, the privileged part of the society often violates the restriction’.

DRI reported a case in which a mother and a child who tested negative for COVID-19 were treated alongside infected patients, ‘which may indirectly indicate a lack of trust in the quality of examination by local medical staff’.

DRI also called on the Georgian government to convince South Ossetia to reconsider their decision to reject aid provided by the WHO.

‘I saw around 20 people in the restaurant’

Tamar Mearakishvili, an ethnic-Georgian activist and journalist living in Akhalgori, warned that medical staff were particularly at risk and that the population was losing trust in them as a result.

‘Patients [in the Akhalgori Clinic] have to pass the corridor to reach the bathroom. On the way, they pass the doctors’ rooms, so they aren’t protected either’, Mearakishvili told OC Media.

‘There were cases when patients left the quarantine zone and entered their rooms. Now, the main doctor and the other doctors are in quarantine. They aren’t protected.’ 

She added that residents of Akhalgori were seemingly avoiding doctors and that people were more reluctant to call an ambulance.

‘After medical personnel were quarantined, the population became frightened. It was then found that a lot of these doctors had contact with people. Residents are afraid to have contact with doctors, they call only those whom they deem as true professionals’, said Mearakishvili. 

She added that social distancing rules were not being properly followed in Akhalgori.

‘Beauty salons were operating underground during the ban. Officials knew about it. You can seldom witness people using facemasks anywhere. They only wore them on the first day; not anymore’, said Mearakishvili. 

She also said that she had witnessed up to 20 people in a single restaurant even though they are not allowed to operate. 

Akhalgori residents ‘cut off from Georgia-controlled districts’

On 15 April, Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, Georgia’s Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, described the humanitarian situation in Akhalgori as ‘extremely alarming’. She said that 13 people had died due to South Ossetia’s policy of preventing residents from accessing medical treatment in Georgia-controlled territory since last September.

On 27 February, a day after the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Georgia, South Ossetia announced that it was closing crossing points with Georgia-controlled territory indefinitely.

On 6 April, Georgia-based human rights group the Human Rights Centre (HRIDC) noted that, apart from being cut off from Georgia-controlled districts, Akhalgori residents’ lives and health now were at ‘extreme risk’  in part due to ‘inadequate’ local hospital supplies.

HRIDC reported that receiving medical services in Tskhinvali (Tskhinval) was not affordable for residents due to the distance and travel costs. 

‘People are in need of critically important healthcare services and are deprived of them because the region has been in isolation for months now’, Ketevan Tsikhelashvili said on 15 April. 

Tsikhelashvili called South Ossetia’s actions in Akhalgori District an ‘extension of ethnic-based discrimination’ against the ethnic Georgian population.

 For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.

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