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COVID-19: Georgia Bans Passenger Rail Traffic, Russia Says Can Contain Virus Without Lockdown

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A health worker checks a student's body temperature at the entrance to a university in Ryazan, a city in western Russia.

The global death toll from the coronavirus has topped 16,000 with more than 370,000 infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of developments in RFE/RL's broadcast countries.

Georgia

Georgia has banned passenger traffic on its domestic railway in an additional move to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Government spokesman Irakli Chikovani said the ban would be in force until a state of emergency ends on April 21.

Georgia declared the state of emergency on March 21, banning gatherings of more than 10 people.

The South Caucasus country of 3.7 million people has also closed its borders, imposed a ban on all foreign citizens entering the country, and halted air traffic with other countries.

All educational institutions, restaurants, nightclubs and gyms have also been closed, although grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations remain open.

The move to ban passenger railway traffic came as a lockdown took effect in the two southern regions of Marneuli and Bolnisi.

Georgia has reported 61 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, with no deaths.​

Disinfectant is sprayed to sanitize a subway train over coronavirus fears in Tbilisi.
Disinfectant is sprayed to sanitize a subway train over coronavirus fears in Tbilisi.

Kosovo

Authorities in Kosovo confirmed 26 new coronavirus infections late on March 23, bringing the country’s official number of cases up to 61.

Kosovar authorities reported the country's first death from COVID-19 on March 22. The victim, an 82-year-old man, had underlying health issues.

The country has closed its borders along with all schools, shops, and restaurants. Grocery stores and pharmacies remain open.

Romania

Romania on March 23 reported a steep increase in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths during the previous 24 hours, as President Klaus Iohannis implored the public to observe self-isolation to slow the spread of the outbreak.

Romania's Strategic Communication Group, the crisis body that deals with the outbreak, said 143 new cases have been confirmed, bringing the total to 576 -- a 45 percent single-day increase -- with three new deaths inside the country, bringing the total to five.

All those who died were elderly people who had previous health conditions.

Seven Romanians have so far been killed by the infection abroad -- six in Italy and one in Spain.

In a live televised address on March 23, Iohannis appealed to Romanians to avoid leaving their homes unless absolutely necessary.

Romania has been under a state of emergency due to the outbreak since March 16.

However, on March 22, hundreds of Romanians in Bucharest and other cities largely ignored the authorities' guidelines and took advantage of the warm weather to stroll in parks and have barbecues in forests.

"It's a cruel irony, but today and in the coming weeks, helping others means staying away from them," Iohannis said, adding that "social distancing is the way out of this incredibly difficult situation."

Tens of thousands of Romanians have been returning over the past week from Italy and Spain, the European countries worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic, putting huge pressure on Romania's already overstretched social and health systems.

Russia

Russia’s Far East region of Primorye has registered its first two cases of coronavirus as the nation’s chief medical officer said containing its spread is possible without imposing a total lockdown.

"The effectiveness of lockdown as a potential solution is now being discussed worldwide because some countries introduced it and some did not. There was no lockdown in Japan or Singapore, but their quarantine measures produced a result, too," Anna Popova, head of the country’s consumer-protection agency Rospotrebnadzor, told Channel One on March 24.

She added that strict quarantine measures in Russia’s capital, Moscow, aren’t being discussed.

As Europe’s second most populous city with 12 million inhabitants, Moscow had 137 registered cases of COVID-19 as of March 23 and the city’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin has said he won’t close the metro, a step three cities took in neighboring Ukraine.

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Meanwhile, the local administration in the Primorye region confirmed its first two cases on March 24, bringing the nationwide total to 440.

Both patients had recently returned from overseas and were placed under medical supervision at an infectious disease hospital.

Russia the previous day widened its ban on international flights.

Russian airlines are only servicing foreign capitals or large cities like New York and only from Moscow airports, state agency Rosavia said. Russia will continue to permit charter flights exclusively for the evacuation of citizens stuck overseas, it said.

Nearly 20,000 Russian citizens have been evacuated from countries suffering from a high number of coronavirus cases.

Moldova

Moldovan Prime Minister Ion Chicu has further imposed freedom-of-movement restrictions, banning people from visiting parks and other recreation sites in an effort to stem the spread of a new form of coronavirus.

“Starting from March 24, city residents are prohibited from visiting parks and other public zones where people gather. This measure is tough, but is necessary for containing the coronavirus. The Interior Ministry and the Defense Ministry will be responsible for enforcing those measures," Chicu told a session of the emergency situations commission late on March 23.

Additional measures include shutting down public transportation, outdoor food markets, mail delivery, and the closing of all commercial shops except for grocery stores and pharmacies.

Residents were instructed to stay at home and can only leave only for work or to shop for food.

Moldova reported 15 new cases of COVID-19 on March 23, bringing the total number of infections to 109.

A national emergency is in place until May 15.​

Montenegro

Montenegro has confirmed its first coronavirus-related death after a 65-year-old man died in a hospital in the capital, Podgorica.

Jevto Erakovic, director of the Clinical Center of Montenegro, said on March 22 that the man, who suffered from chronic lung disease, had been brought to the facility a day earlier.

Montenegro, a former Yugoslav republic on the Adriatic coast with around 620,000 people, was the last European country to report a confirmed case of the coronavirus when it did so on March 17.

It now has 22 reported cases even though the government had sealed its borders, halted public transport, and closed schools and restaurants in an effort to stem the spread of the outbreak.

Iran

Iran has again rejected the United States' offer of humanitarian assistance, with President Hassan Rohani saying that Washington should lift sanctions if it wants to help Tehran fight the coronavirus outbreak.

"American leaders are lying.... If they want to help Iran, all they need to do is to lift sanctions.... Then we can deal with the coronavirus outbreak," Rohani said in a televised speech on March 23.

Iran is the Middle Eastern nation worst hit by the coronavirus.

The Health Ministry announced on March 23 that another 127 Iranians had died from the virus, bring the death toll to 1,812, with more than 23,000 confirmed cases, an increase of over 1,400 cases from the previous day.

Washington has offered humanitarian assistance to its longtime foe. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected the offer on March 22.

Tensions between Iran and the United States have been running high since 2018, when President Donald Trump abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal Tehran reached with six world powers in 2015 and reimposed sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

Iranian authorities have blamed U.S. sanctions for hampering their efforts to curb the outbreak.

"You have blocked Iran's oil exports, you have stopped Iran's banking transactions.... Your offer of help is the biggest lie in history," Rohani said.

On March 22, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan called for the lifting of sanctions on neighboring Iran so that Tehran can better deal with the coronavirus crisis.

“Humanity must unite to fight this pandemic,” Khan tweeted.

Similar calls have been made in the past days by China and Russia, both signatories of the 2015 nuclear accord, as well as more than two dozen organizations and aid groups in the United States.

In a joint statement on March 20, Oxfam America, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), and other groups called on the United States to lift the sanctions for 120 days.

“Sanctions have harmed the public health sector in Iran by slowing or entirely blocking the sale of medicine, respirators, and hygienic supplies needed to mitigate the epidemic, and broad sectoral sanctions continue to negatively impact ordinary Iranians by shuttering civilian-owned businesses and decimating the value of the rial, making it harder to procure food, medicine, and other basic needs,” they said.

U.S. officials have said that the coronavirus outbreak will not save Iran from sanctions that have curbed the country’s oil revenues and put huge pressure on its economy.

"Our policy of maximum pressure on the regime continues," Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, told reporters last week, adding that U.S. sanctions were "not preventing aid from getting to Iran."

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan closed its borders on March 23 and announced that it will effectively lock down its capital, Tashkent, from March 24 to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Uzbekistan has at least 46 confirmed coronavirus cases, all but one in Tashkent, a city of more than 2.5 million.

The government has already shut down public transit in the capital and ordered most businesses to switch to remote working. It has also closed its borders, allowing only foreign nationals to leave.

Kazakhstan

In neighboring Kazakhstan, President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev ordered state-owned companies on March 23 to start selling part of their foreign-currency revenue on the domestic market.

The measure is meant to support the local tenge currency, which has continued to weaken sharply amid the coronavirus outbreak and the drastic global drop in the price of oil, the country's main export.

A medic takes a swab from a man inside a mobile laboratory for COVID-19 testing near St. Petersburg's Pulkovo airport in Russia on March 23.
A medic takes a swab from a man inside a mobile laboratory for COVID-19 testing near St. Petersburg's Pulkovo airport in Russia on March 23.

In a meeting with his cabinet, Toqaev also ordered state-owned companies to start converting their foreign-currency deposits into tenge and pay out up to 100 percent of last year's profits in dividends.

Toqaev also ordered a freeze on bank loan repayments by individuals and small- and medium-sized businesses for the duration of the state of emergency caused by the coronavirus outbreak, which is set to last until at least mid-April but may be extended.

Kazakhstan currently has 62 confirmed coronavirus cases.

Kyrgyzstan

The International Monetary Fund will consider a request from Kyrgyzstan for emergency financing to help its economy cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The Central Asian republic is likely to be the first country to receive funds from the Washington-based lender since the coronavirus outbreak began, the IMF said in a blog post.

The blog did not specify the amount of the request.

A dozen Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries have approached the IMF for financial support, and work is ongoing to expedite approval of the requests.

The IMF Executive Board will consider the request from Kyrgyzstan later this week. A few other requests will be considered in the coming days.

The IMF has several tools at its disposal to help member countries overcome the crisis and limit its human and economic cost, the IMF said. The financial institution is considered the world's lender of last resort.

Earlier this week, the IMF said it "stands ready" to loan up to $1 trillion to help countries that are struggling with the economic impact of the coronavirus.

"Nearly 80 countries are requesting our help," IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said in a statement on March 23.

Kyrgyzstan has now declared a state of emergency in the capital, Bishkek, and several other regions and districts in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

In addition to Bishkek, the state of emergency applies to Osh and Jalal-Abad, the southern districts of Nookat and Kara-Suu in the Osh region, and the Suzak district of the Jalal-Abad region, the presidential press service said, according to TASS.

The move will clear the way for authorities to lock the cities down by imposing curfews and other measures.

Foreigners have been banned from entering the country, while air and railway services have been suspended with the exception of weekly flights from Moscow to the capital, Bishkek, and Osh.

Schools, universities, and kindergartens will stay closed until at least April 8.

Kyrgyzstan’s security council recommended on March 21 that Prime Minister Mukhammedkalyi Abylgaziev declare a nationwide state of emergency due to the pandemic.

Local officials in Kyrgyzstan already had declared a state of emergency in the Nookat and Suzak districts.

Kyrgyzstan has 16 confirmed cases and no deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Ukraine

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has said there is no need yet to declare a national emergency as a leading health official announced 10 more cases of coronavirus.

"At the moment, there is no need to introduce a state of emergency in Ukraine. A state of emergency is introduced when there are extreme events. Today, the development of the coronavirus in Ukraine is quite moderate compared to many European countries," Shmyhal told local television late on March 23.

He added that measures the government is currently taking are ample for the time being.

Shmyhal noted also that in the next few weeks the situation may change due to the spread of the coronavirus.

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The same evening on television, Chief Medical Officer Viktor Lyashko said 10 more people on a preliminary basis have been infected with COVID-19.

Confirmation of their tests is expected on March 24 and could raise the number of sickened people to 83. Three deaths have been recorded linked to the virus.

According to the Interior Ministry, more than 72,000 Ukrainians have returned from abroad, including from some of the hardest hit European countries, since a nationwide quarantine was imposed from March 12 to April 3.

Among those diagnosed with coronavirus are several members of parliament, including Ruslan Horbenko, a member of the ruling pro-presidential party.

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Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has urged the heads of church confessions to conduct prayer services online and without the presence of people at places of worship.

“Thank you to all leaders of churches who the understand danger [at hand] and are conducting prayer services without people and online [instead],” the presidential office said in a statement. “I believe that other heads of churches will join in the necessary practice.”

Since March 17, all aviation, railway, and bus services with foreign countries and within the country have been shut down. Shopping centers, cafes, restaurants, gyms and other nonessential facilities have been shuttered. Only grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, and banks are still open.

The previous day, Kyiv further closed public transportation, allowing only critical personnel to take buses, trolleybuses, and trams. Metro systems were closed in Kyiv, Odesa, and Dnipro on March 17.

Several cities, including Kyiv, have declared states of emergency.

Armenia

Armenia’s parliament has backed a government proposal to introduce prison sentences for people found guilty of defying quarantine or self-isolation orders issued by health authorities in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus infections.

The bill passed in its second and final reading on March 23, three days after it was initially approved by the National Assembly.

The government moved to impose penalties last week following the declaration of a one-month state of emergency in Armenia, which has so far reported 194 coronavirus cases but no deaths.

About 600 people in the country are being kept in quarantine and hundreds of others are in self-isolation, according to the authorities.

The legislation calls for prison sentences ranging from one year to five years and fines of up to 1 million drams ($2,026) for violating confinement orders.

It also envisages financial penalties for TV, radio, print, and online media outlets disseminating unauthorized information about the deadly virus.

The bill initially stipulated that all media reports and social-media posts regarding the coronavirus must reflect information provided by government sources.

Opposition politicians, civic activists, and journalists have decried this provision, saying that it would legalize censorship and puts unnecessary curbs on press freedom.

At least two Armenian media outlets have been ordered to delete coronavirus-related stories from their websites in recent days.

The authorities have also forced several Facebook users to delete posts critical of the government’s handling of the outbreak.

Azerbaijan

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix has been postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak, another sporting blow to the Caucasus nation.

The Formula One motor race was to be held at the Baku City Circuit on June 7.

"The postponement was agreed upon after extensive discussions with Formula 1 as well as the FIA [the international racing-events governing body] and the government of the Azerbaijan Republic,” organizers of the Baku race said in a statement.

"This comes as a direct result of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic and has been based entirely on the expert guidance provided to us by the relevant authorities," they added.

With the move, Formula One racing has now postponed or canceled eight races this season, meaning the earliest the circuit can restart is in mid-June.

The postponement comes on the heels of another disappointing sporting decision for Azerbaijanis caused by the global coronavirus outbreak.

Baku was to host four soccer games including one of the quarterfinals of the Euro 2020 championship over the summer.

UEFA, European football’s governing body, has postponed the tournament until 2021.

Azerbaijan has reported 65 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with one death, according to data compiled by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian, Balkan, Uzbek, Kazakh, Romanian, and Kyrgyz services, RIA Novosti, RBK news agency, TASS, Reuters, Interfax, AFP, g4media.ro, and digi24.ro
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