Analysis: Covid-19 is an important test for Azerbaijani unity
11 April 2020

In this commentary for, Ahmad Alili says that the coronavirus pandemic has brought Azerbaijanis together, and provided the first major test to recently appointed state officials

The COVID-19 pandemic has created interesting qualitative and quantitative changes at the top of  Azerbaijan's public agenda.

Following the snap parliamentary elections in February, the newly elected Parliament,  which includes a number of new faces, is tasked to address the challenges the country is facing.  In a speech at the opening of the Parliament, President Aliyev  sent clear messages to the public servants, political parties and youth.

The new pandemic is also providing the first  serious challenge  to the new presidential team who have taken over after the departure of the former head of Presidential Apparatus Ramiz Mehdiyev and presidential aide Ali Hasanov in late 2019.  COVID-19 presented the newly appointed officials with  a serious challenge before  they could adapt to their roles.

Alongside all the changes, COVID-19 also become a testing ground for a range of public policies, such as public health management, public expectations on social assistance during the crisis, crisis management and food provisions, fake news in the media, public communication strategies and international relations.

The Health authorities declared the first COVID-19 case in Azerbaijan on 28 February. Up to that moment public opinion was divided over the closure of borders with Iran -the first country in the region to experience an outbreak of the disease. Due to Nakhchivan's geographic position, to guarantee its access to the autonomous republic, the government in Baku decided to install heavy checks on the border with Iran "for disinfection works", but not to close the border. Besides, AzAL - Azerbaijani national aviation carrier - was among the few airlines running direct flights to Tehran. Although starting from 24 February, the media reported on the border closure with Iran (only Azerbaijanis returning to the home could come back in), the official confirmation on the border closure was only announced on 28 February.

A day before- on 27 February, an Operational Headquarters under the Cabinet of Ministers (OH-CM) was created by Presidential decree. The head of the Operational Headquarters  which brings together officials from all relevant Mministries and  public agencies  is the new Prime Minister,  Ali Asadov.

Starting from 2 March, all  educational and other non-vital activities were suspended for a week, but later this period was prolonged up to 20 April.

The first confirmed cases all were imported from Iran, and a few were students returning from Italy. The OH-CM organised  quarantine zones on the borders with Iran and Russia. In Baku the government established special quarantine zones for the returnees taking flights back to Azerbaijan,.  Following President Ilham Aliyev's phone conversations with the prime minister of Georgia and the president of Turkey, state borders  were closed on 13 and 14 March respectively. The Russian-Azerbaijani border was closed on 16 March. Nevertheless, foreigners wanting to leave for their home country and Azerbaijanis ready to return, could use the state-border.

In the following period, the cities in the Absheron Peninsula (including the capital city Baku) and adjoining regions isolated themselves from the rest of the country, President Aliyev signed a decree on  creating a special fund to fight the COVID-19 spread in the country, and the state allocated AZN 1 bln to  it. Also, a call was put for citizens and firms to donate to the fund. Up to now, the total sum of donation has reached more than AZN 110 million.

Following  a nationwide quarantine, in the first days of April,  an SMS permission system was introduced. Before leaving their homes, citizens have to submit a request indicating the reason for leaving and their ID number. There are three  justifications for not observing the lockdown: (1) having an urgent medical need; (2) shopping necessities and payments; (3) attending a mourning ceremony of a close relative. Several government agencies and their selective staff and food markets workers were issued with individual permissions to enable them to carry out their duties. Journalists and media workers were among  those allowed to move around the cities freely and prepare media-reports.

The government announced social assistance plans to help people in need. An online service was created to help the aid-seekers to register and get the 'jobless' status in order to receive AZN 190. Overall, the government allocated AZN 70 million to aid the population with  this one-time payment, which civil society experts on economic policy considered to be insufficient. The presidential decree also allows residents to pay a lowered rate for some of the utilities.

Surprisingly, during the announced lock-down, there was an almost unanimous agreement among public-servants, civil society representatives and the opposition parties on the measures. "#StayAtHomeAzerbaijan" (#EvdeQal) campaign was successful and supported by the influencers in the society and on social media. However, the same thing cannot be said for the recent legislation adopted by the Parliament on social-media activities related to the spreading of "misinformation during the pandemic". According to the authorities, the spread of false information on social networks might create a panic among the population during the COVID19 pandemic. Since late February, WhatsApp and other social network were used by some users to spread incorrect information, which was then widely disseminated; later, the authors of such contents explained their actions by saying "it was for fun". According to government officials, these kind of activities should be fought off.   Civil society representatives and oppositional parties campaigning against the newly adopted law argue that the bill creates a precedent, and might be used  later, long after COVID-19 pandemic is gone .

During the pandemic, Azerbaijan  was both  recipient and donor of  humanitarian aid. Baku was promised assistance by the the USA, EU and Russia. USA donated USD 1,7 million, the EU donated EUR 14 million, and Russia sent 79 packs of test-kits. Later, China also sent medical necessities, such as medical masks. During the first days of the crisis, Azerbaijan helped Iran with AZN 5 million. Besides, Azerbaijan contributed to the World Health Organisation AZN 5 million and sent China medical necessities also.

The pandemics also saw an increase in civic initiatives to aid those in need. Several volunteer groups are collecting funds to provide social assistance and food to those who are temporarily deprived of daily incomes. These volunteering groups represent various groups in the society: civil society representatives, social media activists, TV anchors, and even volunteering groups within the police forces.

An important issue during the pandemic was the consideration of the well-being and safety of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians. Tural Ganjaliyev, the head of NK Azerbaijani community,  appealed to the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and expressed the concern about their well-being and unreported cases in Nagorno-Karabakh. Following the WHO visit to Abkhazia region, and the monitoring of the COVID-19 situation in this breakaway region, officials in Tbilisi disclosed their role in this action. In Azerbaijan, it was argued that Baku also could invite WHO representatives to visit NK region to monitor the COVID-19 situation, and guarantee the rights of NK Armenians to health.

The shocks to Azerbaijan's economy during the COVID-19 pandemics can be attributed to four key reasons

-          A sharp decrease in oil prices that coincided with Pandemic;

-          A sharp reduction in the number of tourists visiting the country;

-          The shrinking internal market due to the lock-down;

-          Azerbaijani temporary-workers overseas returning to the home country due to COVID-19

The slump in the oil prices, which is not directly related  to the pandemic, is the  main source of  concern for the local expert community in the country. According to the head of the Central Bank, "the country has switched to Plan B". Recently, the revision of the state budget for 2020 was announced. Due to lack of information about how long the oil prices will stay below USD 55 per barrel, experts hesitate to declare a figure about the extent of the damage to the economy. Depending on the length of the low-oil price period, the numbers might increase and decrease.

The country was also left without income from tourists. Notably, during the Novruz holidays in mid-March, a considerable number of tourists from  neighbouring countries would normally visit Azerbaijan. In the post-2015 crisis, the tourism sector also became an important income source for the country.

Due to the  quarantine measures,  local restaurants, pubs and other leisure objects were prohibited from working. Most of the production facilities, excluding the institutions providing vital service and products, have ceased work. The self-isolation measures also shrink the opportunity for small and medium businesses to earn and pay their taxes.

In conclusion, COVID-19 in Azerbaijan  is a test not only for the public health management system, but also tests the unity among people, among groups with different political views, and among different ethnic groups. Besides, it can also create a favourable environment for confidence-building measures across the region, especially between Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

source: Ahmad Alili is Chairman of the Caucasus Policy Analysis Centre of Azerbaijan.

photo: A person with mask walks through a nearly empty square in Baku (picture courtesy of Anadolou Agency, Ankara)


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