YEREVAN—Streets in central Yerevan were conspicuously empty on Monday morning following Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s public confirmation of Armenia’s first coronavirus case. The patient, a 29-year old Armenian citizen, had been evacuated from Iran on Friday along with his wife in a special repatriation flight chartered by the Armenian government following last week’s partial closing of the Meghri border crossing.
According to the Prime Minister, the patient turned himself in at a designated medical clinic on Sunday after experiencing shortness of breath and a fever—symptoms typically associated with the coronavirus infection. Public health officials confirmed that he had been infected, but his wife tested negative.
Authorities immediately suspended classes at all state-run kindergartens, schools and universities across the country. Students were still expected to complete school work via email however. Following the recommendation from the Ministry of Education, private institutions followed suit. The American University of Armenia (AUA) announced its scheduled spring break would be brought forward to the week of March 2 through March 7. “The University will support the recommendation by the WHO and allow for you to take sick leave and stay home if you have any of the symptoms,” wrote AUA president Karin Markides in an email to the student body.
At the same time, Armenian border agents began further sealing the border with Iran, prohibiting virtually all traffic. Previously, cargo had been exempted from the quarantine order. Health Minister Arsen Torosyan explained that measures had been taken to minimize contact between Iranian truck drivers, who received a police escort and had their temperatures tested at the border, and the Armenian public.
Similar tests were conducted by public health officials at Armenia’s Zvartnots International Airport on passengers from all flights arriving from countries with declared coronavirus cases. Armenian citizens were also strongly advised to avoid traveling to coronavirus-hit countries such as Italy, China and Turkey, but suspending flights was ruled out. Several airlines nevertheless reduced flight schedules, with Ryanair halving regular connections to Rome and Milan. The Yerevan-based Armenian Air Company went even further, immediately suspending all flights to Tel-Aviv in the wake of new cases of infection reported in Israel.
Still, many residents chose to stay home this week and telecommute wherever possible. Hand sanitizer and water bottles were among the first items to run out in supermarkets across the Armenian capital as many rushed to pick up supplies. Those who did venture out often sported surgical masks.
Restaurateurs and local small business owners have been particularly affected by the fallout from the coronavirus ‘scare,’ with many reporting drastic reductions of foot traffic in recent days. Elena Kozhemyakina, communications director at MBG Hospitality, which manages several upscale restaurants in downtown Yerevan, sees no significant decline in business due to the coronavirus. “We haven’t had a single cancellation for March 8 (International Women’s Day) at any of our locations,” she tells the Armenian Weekly. Still, MBG has implemented strict hygiene guidelines for staff and customers. They have also advised the Armenian Association of Restaurants to do the same.
But others have not been so lucky. Tamara Ohanjanyan, a wine connoisseur and event organizer in Yerevan, told the Armenian Weekly that she was forced to cancel an upcoming wine pairing event over coronavirus-related fears. “March usually signifies the start of the spring festival season in Yerevan,” says Ohanjanyan, “my last event in early February was attended by almost 30 people, but I had to cancel the upcoming one after only three confirmed.”
So far, coronavirus fears have not disrupted Yerevan’s spring festival and conference schedule. However, cancellations of major events around the world have affected Armenia’s business and tech communities. “We had purchased exhibitor passes, plane tickets and accommodations for the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week,” grumbled Vache Asatryan, chief product officer at Mutable.io, an edge computing startup with operations in Yerevan. “When the major sponsors dropped out citing safety issues, the event was condemned to cancellation,” continued Asatryan who traveled to Spain anyway.
Despite these measures, the government came under fire from some critics for its apparent inability to keep the virus outside the country’s borders, with some wondering why the passengers from the plane were not immediately quarantined upon arrival. Much of the anxiety over the matter has been largely fueled by the spread of disinformation about the virus, its symptoms, cures and the effectiveness of containment measures. The World Health Organization’s reference document issued to the Health Ministries of member-states actually warns that hasty quarantine measures “may also create additional sources of contamination and dissemination of the disease.”
In effect, Armenian authorities had been monitoring the 130 Armenian citizens who had been repatriated from Iran and immediately quarantined anyone who had come into physical contact with the patient including the EMS paramedics who first treated him. For those 32 individuals, the ordeal of supervised isolation was somewhat alleviated by unexpectedly lavish accommodations. In a video posted to the Prime Minister’s Facebook page, the individuals were shown being greeted by Ministry of Health officials dressed in HAZMAT suits at the five-star Golden Palace hotel in the resort town of Tsaghkadzor, much to the amusement of the international press. The hotel in question, which contains an indoor heated pool, luxury suites and other amenities had been ‘donated’ to the State several months prior by the former head of the Armenian Customs Service, Armen Avetisyan, as part of an anti-corruption investigation.
Lauren McKay, a British expat living in Yerevan, was among the passengers arriving at Zvartnots Airport on a Ryanair flight from Italy on Sunday evening when she experienced Armenia’s response to the virus first hand. “Our temperature was checked on arrival via a camera as we walked to security,” she told the Weekly. Disembarking passengers were then asked to fill out forms stating where they had been, their names, addresses, phone numbers and preferred method of contact. They were then kept in the luggage retrieval area for 30 minutes until the process had been completed before being released. “They were very professional at the airport. Everyone had masks and coveralls on,” recalls McKay, “I thought they were very well organized.”
Government officials say that the patient is in good health and recovering, while no further cases have been recorded. In the meantime, the Ministry of Health is advising residents to avoid unnecessary public gatherings, work from home when possible and wash hands regularly.
Disclosure: The author maintains a working relationship with Mutable, one of the entities mentioned in the above article.