The pandemic has taken an enormous toll on human lives and health globally. It has severely impacted the socio-economic state of millions of households, bringing immeasurable human tragedy, paralysis of social connectivity, economic crisis, and, to a certain extent, culture shock.
This shock is, in part, the result of the many new practices introduced as a means of dealing with this situation, utterly altering our day-to-day lives. Since we hope to see an improved state of affairs by the end of 2021 after months of cohabitation with the pandemic, it is now time to start thinking about which of these ‘novel practices’ would be in our best interest to maintain post-pandemic.
Opportunities in higher education: Although the COVID-19 virus created unprecedented risks in education systems worldwide given the full disruption of the traditional face-to-face academic classroom model, this experience opened up interesting unforeseen frontiers for universities. Alternative avenues of conducting the academic process on a massive scale no longer remain a theoretical endeavor; sadly, but remarkably, it has now been tested in practice. While online education and virtual classrooms were forcefully introduced in the middle of the 2019-20 academic year as the sole option available for educational institutions globally to carry on the educational process without interruption, this method is now viewed as a welcome element in the hybrid model of education in the post-pandemic future when we return to the normal ways of doing business. For example, today, a student can reside in Georgia but study in any university abroad (and hundreds of Georgian students are benefiting from this opportunity). Also, while studying at certain Georgian universities, students are given the opportunity to attend joint ‘virtual classrooms’ with foreign institutions to maximize their access to the academic resources available.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a positive amendment was made to the Georgian Law on Higher Education in June 2020, which legally permits hybrid education. With the development of technology and broad access to it, and virtual learning becoming accepted, Georgian universities gained the opportunity to open up a completely new dimension of cooperation with foreign universities. For example, given the established cooperation with CERGE-EI in Prague, The International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University (ISET) offers 5 academic modules delivered jointly by professors in Prague and Tbilisi. The number of such courses is planned to increase further in the coming year. For example, ISET is working with the Stockholm Institute of Transitional Economics (SITE), Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, and Kyiv School of Economics to establish similar joint courses. Such practices, supporting the internationalization of Georgia’s education system, have only become possible due to the introduction of online practices and hybrid programmes, supported by the welcome legislative change and forced by the ongoing experience of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
New features in urban culture: The new restrictions imposed and practiced in light of the pandemic have had a great impact on everyday urban life in Tbilisi as well as other major cities in Georgia and elsewhere. Whether these are mandatory measures imposed temporarily for a good reason or practices developed in response to the restrictions, some of them should be continued in the post-pandemic period, for example, the habit of taking a walk in the fresh air, which had been completely lost in Tbilisi in the last 2-3 decades. Today’s restrictions and the prolonged period of time spent at home have reinvigorated public demand for regular walks outdoors. Turtle and Lisi Lakes, Vake and Mziuri Parks, the former territory of the hippodrome, and other recreational zones are full of people at any given time. This is a positive development directed towards a healthier environment and healthier practices in the city and, hopefully, even after the pandemic this welcome practice will be sustained as part of the city’s culture. With this, there will be more green recreational areas required in and around Tbilisi, speeding up the process of their integration into the culture of the city.
Another positive practice is increasingly detailed attention to hygiene. In the best public interest, this practice would be beneficial to maintain post-pandemic, which will require broad public support, an informal social agreement.
The third such practice is social distancing. There will no longer be a public health-related necessity to maintain distancing norms after the end of the pandemic, however, it will make sense to keep the practice post-pandemic to improve respect for personal space. In Georgia, standing in line and ‘queuing up’ never came easily. Even when standing in ATM queues, people huddle around the person using the ATM. Even during the pandemic, when this is against the regulations, many Georgians find it difficult to comply with compulsory social distancing. Therefore, it would be good if we tried to keep the distance standards in the post-pandemic period.
Fourthly, albeit due to being ‘forced’ to do so, the public has begun to use alternative means of transportation more actively—scooters, bikes, etc. I hope their popularity will not just hold steady in the post-pandemic period but will continue to grow over time. This will help deal with traffic jams and, even if only marginally, slow down Tbilisi’s ever-increasing air pollution. Along the same lines, we must also mention E-Commerce, the scale of which has blown up globally, including in Georgia. This process comes as a positive development for the economy, as well as for the functioning of the city. It is highly likely that these dynamics will remain with us in the post-pandemic period.
It is worth noting that the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic have strengthened the trend of suburbanization. As surprising as it is, this phenomenon was not evident in post-Soviet Tbilisi. However, now, with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, a segment of the city’s population (those who had the means to do so), departed for suburban summer homes located in green areas with fresh air where access to private back yards is unrestricted, allowing families to spend their free time in a healthier, more pleasant manner. This rise in demand for suburban living spaces was mirrored in the rise of real-estate prices around the city, with Okrokana, Tsavkisi, Tabakhmela, Saguramo, and other areas being prime examples. (Globally, demand for private homes with yards has grown substantially). What does this mean for Tbilisi—does it imply that the city’s infrastructure will be relatively relieved? Does it mean that the suburban lifestyle will become more popular even after the end of the pandemic? These are open questions for the moment.
A new reality in institutional culture: Public health needs and the risk of spreading the virus forced institutions, managers, and staff to face unprecedented challenges and realities worldwide. For many months, millions of organizations, public and private, for-profit and non-profit, have been working remotely using various online communication platforms. While online everyday work was part of the culture of many multinational corporations and international financial institutions with offices globally, it has now become the new ‘business-as-usual’ for everyone. Meanwhile, numerous organizations have discovered that remote work or home-based work does not hinder their effectiveness, either in terms of outcomes and results or in the quality of products and outputs. Will this lead to the institutionalization of these novel approaches, pushing organizations’ decision-makers to think about how the benefits of remote work can be maximized in the post-pandemic future? What does all of this mean for large-scale, medium-sized, and small firms and organizations in the post-pandemic period—could it mean the adoption of new (more practical and creative) organizational management? Will keeping some staff on home-based work arrangements translate into savings such as reducing expenditures on office space and other services, infrastructure, and utilities? Will this new practice of home-based work create more opportunities for individuals to engage in the labor market—for example, for people with disabilities, or in terms of integrating mothers with young children, etc.? Will this new practice make the labor market more global, less dependent on location and geography? Today, when organizations already have immense experience utilizing adaptive skills on a grand scale, will we return to our usual, everyday commuting routines of physically showing up at work, or will we transition to a new, more mobile, more effective schedule, and modality, in order to save time and resources while keeping up with established standards, doing business as before? Moreover, if certain activities can continue to be done remotely, can this be used to solve the big problems faced by big cities, at least in terms of reducing everyday trips to commute to work?
Competence of the Healthcare System: Effective management of public healthcare systems stands as a survival guarantee for countries and their populations during pandemics. After the end of the pandemic, Georgia will be left with a relatively more competent healthcare system with an improved reputation. Doctors and other medical personnel turned out to be the army standing on the front line of public defense. We have thanked them many times, both personally and publicly (through the media). However, no thanks can express the gratitude that they deserve for the heroic professional devotion they have demonstrated day in and day out. Maintaining the growing competence and image of the healthcare system is in the best interests of the country, and for that, we may wish to ask two questions: firstly, do doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel receives adequate wages that correspond to their effort? I will not go into detail regarding the numbers, but very sadly, the picture looks calamitous. The second issue relates to medical education abroad. Georgian doctors who have received education or practiced medicine abroad were in constant communication with the Georgian public via the media. These appearances provided us with much-needed hope and additional information. It is difficult (if not impossible) to have them return to work in Georgia, but we do have the option to prioritize state scholarships for young Georgians to receive medical education abroad. This must be solidified with appropriate paperwork and contracts to ensure these doctors return to the country after receiving their professional education with state support. They should be required to practice their profession in the country and help introduce and establish internationally-acclaimed healthcare standards and share the knowledge they have acquired widely within the professional community in Georgia. As the pandemic, once again, demonstrated, the strength of the healthcare system plays an integral part in the security and prosperity of the nation; investment is needed in the entire professional lifecycle of our medical personnel—from improving the quality of medical education through the provision of appropriate and adequate wages.