Who thinks Georgia handled the pandemic successfully?
[Note: This post first appeared on the Caucasus Data Blog, a joint effort of OC Media and CRRC Georgia. The article was written by Givi Silagadze, a researcher at CRRC Georgia. The views presented in the article reflect the author's alone and do not represent the views of CRRC Georgia or any related entity.]
Prior to the most recent episode in Georgia's political crises, COVID-19 was the country's main concern. Yet, data on how the public views the country's handling of the crisis shows a stark partisan divide.
It has been a year since the first case of coronavirus was detected in Georgia. Since then, over 260,000 cases have been confirmed, over 3,300 fatalities, and the economy has suffered the largest decline since 1994. In light of this, how does the Georgian public assess the country’s handling of the pandemic?
Data from the 2020 Caucasus Barometer survey offers a snapshot of how well people think the country did in dealing with the outbreak.
The data suggests that there are few differences between demographic groups, but that political division is evident in evaluations of the country’s performance.
A slight majority (56%) reported that Georgia had done a somewhat good job (45%) or a good job (11%); 38% said it had done a bad job.
People’s assessments were associated with several social and demographic variables.
People with a higher education were 8 percentage points less likely to praise the country’s response than those with a lower level of education.
People aged 35–55 were 10 percentage points less likely to report that Georgia had done well than younger people (aged 18–35).
Other socio-demographic variables, including IDP status, ethnicity, employment situation, settlement type, sex, wealth, or whether or not someone had tested positive for COVID-19, did not appear to be associated with how well someone rated the country’s performance.
While there were relatively few differences between social and demographic groups, there was a stark partisan divide.
Georgian Dream supporters were 45 percentage points more likely to report that Georgia had done a somewhat good job or a good job in dealing with the outbreak than supporters of other opposition parties, after controlling for other factors.
Similarly, Georgian Dream supporters were 27 percentage points more likely to give a positive assessment than those who supported no party in particular.
People who experienced economic hurdles in parallel with the outbreak also assessed the country’s performance differently.
Those who lost a job in 2020, or had a family/household member lose a job during the past year were significantly (18 percentage points) less likely to evaluate Georgia’s handling of the outbreak positively.
The loss of a job and partisanship also interacted in interesting ways.
Georgian Dream supporters and those with no clear political preference were significantly less likely to assess the government’s response positively if they or a family member had lost a job.
In contrast, for supporters of opposition parties, there was no significant difference between those who had or had not lost a job in the past 12 months.
All else equal, the data suggests that party identification is strongly associated with people’s assessment of the country’s handling of the outbreak.
It is impossible to determine with the data at hand if party identification drives the differing assessments of the government’s performance or vice versa.
In either case, it reaffirms what previous studies have suggested about the political polarization of the Georgian electorate being reflected through divergent assessments of past events and institutions rather than opposing policy alternatives or ideological views.
This, once again, underscores the necessity of responsible political leadership that would unite rather than divide the nation during crises.
Note: The above data analysis is based on a logistic regression model which included the following variables: age group (18–35, 35–55, 55+), sex (male or female), education (completed secondary/lower or incomplete higher education/higher), settlement type (capital, urban, rural), wealth (an additive index of ownership of 12 different items), did anyone in the household lose a job in the past 12 months, party support (Georgian Dream, refuse to answer, no party/do not know, other parties), did they test positive for COVID-19, ethnic group (ethnic Georgian or other ethnic group), employment situation (working or not), IDP status (forced to move due to conflicts since 1989 or not). The analysis was run with and without attitudinal variables, with substantively similar results. The estimates in this article present the results of the model with attitudinal variables. The data used in the article is available here.
But what do people want?
The findings reflect broader global trends which have seen dramatic decreases in air pollution levels in China, Italy, and the United Kingdom.
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Without trust in the messages of public health officials, measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus are less likely to be complied with, exacerbating the spread of the virus.
Many experts believe that to fully remove the restrictions which have emerged because of the COVID-19 crisis, a vaccine is needed. While vaccines are only expected in the medium term, if and when they are available, Georgia may face large challenges with implementing a large scale vaccination program.
The COVID-19 outbreak generated discussion about whether support for democracy would decline during and after the crisis. While reported support increased, this did not necessarily match support for democratic means of governance.
Data from the CRRC’s COVID-19 monitor shows that more people in Georgia reported support for democracy compared to the pre-crisis period. However, as before the crisis, support for democracy does not seem to be grounded in the values commonly associated with democratic governance.
In times of crisis, support for governments often rises in what is known as a rallying around the flag effect. The COVID-19 crisis in Georgia has been no exception.
Data from around the world has shown rallying around the flag effects in many countries during the pandemic, with a few exceptions. Georgia has followed this broader pattern, with performance ratings tripling for many actors and institutions between November/December 2019 and May 2020.
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Talk about political polarisation in Georgia is easy to find. Some have suggested that the recent United National Movement (UNM) announcement that Saakashvili will be their prime ministerial candidate will only make matters worse.
A new data analysis CRRC Georgia released on Tuesday suggests that this may in fact be the case. Data from several years of CRRC Georgia and NDI polling indicates that there are few ideological or policy issues that the supporters of Georgian Dream (GD) and the United National Movement (UNM) disagree about. Rather, attitudes towards politicians and political events are what divides, a fact the public intuitively recognises.
An NDI and CRRC survey conducted in June 2020 asked questions about people’s beliefs about the origins and spread of coronavirus. The data suggest that while a majority of the population does not believe in common disinformation messages such as a relation between 5G technology and the spread of the coronavirus, only a small portion thinks that coronavirus came about naturally.
In Georgia, it would appear that informing people that others are acting responsibly in the pandemic could in fact lead to the opposite behaviour.
Communications have been critical to attempts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 globally, and it is unclear what the best strategy for doing so might be. In Georgia, it would appear that informing people that others are acting responsibly in the pandemic could in fact lead to the opposite behaviour.
While personality in politics matters greatly for the Georgian public, data from this year shows that for Georgian Dream and United National Movement voters, policy is still important.
A recent CRRC Georgia policy brief argued that what was really dividing Georgians politically was personalities rather than policies. Data from the August 2020 CRRC and NDI survey provides further evidence for this idea.
However, the data also shows a difference between Georgian Dream (GD) and United National Movement (UNM) voters in terms of policy preferences and that economic policy is the most important issue for a plurality of voters.
Political campaigning takes a wide range of forms, from digital advertising to door knocking. Generally, campaigning is believed to both mobilise voters to actually go out to vote as well as win over voters, but which is most relevant in Georgia?
Data from the August CRRC Georgia and NDI public opinion poll indicate that people who wanted to be contacted by campaigners also appeared more partisan than others. This may suggest that campaigning in Georgia will be more effective at turning out partisans than persuading the undecided.
Since the pandemic hit Georgia in February, the Georgian government has taken several measures to raise awareness about it. But are the public actually well informed?
Since March 2020, the Georgian Government has been conducting large scale information campaigns through traditional and online media, has launched an informational web portal, StopCov.ge, and has even launched a smartphone app providing information about contact with infected people.
The pandemic has clearly harmed people’s health, yet new data from the Caucasus Barometer Survey suggests that people considered themselves more healthy in 2020.
In 2019, 35% of the public evaluated their health as good. In past years, this had shifted up and down to varying extents, however, the largest change was a decline from 41% to 30% between 2013 and 2014.
In contrast, between 2019 and 2020, the share of people reporting that they were in good health nearly doubled from 35% to 65%.
With the pandemic still raging and accompanying economic restrictions still in force, Georgians are unsurprisingly pessimistic about their economic future. This holds true especially for supporters of the opposition United National Movement Party, above all other party supporters.
COVID-19 restrictions have impacted people’s economic activity heavily. This is reflected in key economic indicators such as GDP, which declined by 5.9% year on year between January and November 2020.
It is also reflected in employment, with fewer people reporting starting new jobs and more people reporting having lost one, according to the 2020 Caucasus Barometer.
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CRRC Georgia’s Omnibus survey has tracked attitudes towards the COVID-19 pandemic since April 2020. Data from the most recent wave of the survey, in January, suggest that Georgians increasingly believe that the worst is already behind us.
In April 2020, Georgia had low COVID-19 case counts. Given this as well as the difficult situations in other countries, it is perhaps unsurprising that 45% of the public believed that the worst of the virus was yet to come. At the same time, 26% thought that the virus would not be a major problem, and 14% thought that the worst had already passed.
With two kinds of vaccines against COVID-19 already available in Georgia, the public’s attitude towards vaccination is becoming more and more important. So why are Georgians so sceptical of coronavirus vaccination?
While willingness to get vaccinated against COVID-19 was not high even in June or December 2020, it is logical to suppose that hesitation would only have increased after the unfortunate case of a young nurse passing away shortly after receiving the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on 18 March.
As the data from February 2021 CRRC/NDI survey shows, even before this incident, in February, only around a third of Georgians were willing to be vaccinated against COVID-19, with the largest concern being related to the quality of the vaccine.