YEREVAN—Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced on Tuesday that Armenians were expected to stay at home for another 10 days. The initial stay-home order was enforced last week when the Prime MInister called on all Armenians to take social distancing seriously in an effort to slow the continued spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That same day, the National Assembly also passed a controversial amendment to the ongoing State of Emergency act which would allow authorities to track the previous movements of known carriers of the virus through their mobile phones in order to help chronologically map and isolate potential transmission points. Opposition parties strongly opposed the measure, with Bright Armenia Party leader Eduard Marukyan criticizing the measure as an unnecessary breach of civil liberties, adding that it would “have a zero impact in terms of stopping the spread of the epidemic.”
The legislation was pushed through the National Assembly on Tuesday night on a fourth reading after members of the governing party unexpectedly joined opposition to vote down an earlier draft. Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan, who first introduced the legislation, later defended the phone tracking measure as necessary to quickly identify anyone in close proximity to an outbreak point, clarifying that it would only apply to those known to be infected, and personally identifying data would be immediately deleted once they are cured. He also added that only a small number of data scientists—all of whom having signed NDAs—will have direct access to data.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 continues to grow; at the time of this writing, there are 571 cases in Armenia. Health Minister Arsen Torosyan says the vast majority of patients are showing no signs of respiratory difficulty at all, while a dozen are being monitored for pneumonia. Ministry of Health spokeswoman Alina Nikoghosyan confirmed that an 89-year-old patient suffering from hypertension and diabetes passed away at the Nork Infection Diseases Hospital earlier this week, bringing the total number of deaths to four.
While the infection rate has slowed slightly in recent days, Torosyan has expressed concern that the healthcare system might soon be reaching capacity in treating new cases. “If the rate doesn’t flatten like in South Korea, we might find ourselves treating 2,000 coronavirus cases by April 14,” the Minister announced in his daily Facebook Live broadcast. He went on to explain that if such a rate were to be reached, patients showing no symptoms will be asked to self-quarantine at home. This statement came as photos depicting rows of beds being set up in the lobby of the Karen Demirchyan Sports and Concerts Complex were widely shared across social media with users urging their compatriots to stay at home.
However, Mane Gevorgyan, a spokeswoman for the COVID-19 Task Force later clarified that it was just a precaution and that “all measures were being considered to mitigate the contagion.”
As part of the extended stay-home directive, authorities have announced stricter constraints on freedom of movement. Public transport in Yerevan has been suspended, and police have set up roadblocks on major thoroughfares across Armenia to curb non-essential intercity traffic. Citizens are still allowed to travel in private vehicles, but they must carry signed documents from employers proving that they are essential workers or that they are traveling for important reasons. Supermarkets, pharmacies, banks and some other essential services remain open.
To help mitigate the economic cost of the shutdown on workers and businesses, the government announced three new emergency bailout packages providing financial aid to the unemployed, small businesses and expectant mothers. The Pashinyan administration announced that it has approved eight social and economic anti-crisis measures this week. “We will monitor the implementation of these programs in order to understand which ones are effective and which are not that effective,” explained the Prime Minister. “The government will continue to work on its anti-crisis initiatives, and we will probably have new ideas in the near future.”
To finance these new obligations, the Armenian government is entitled to part of a €140 million emergency assistance fund which the European Union (EU) has made available for Eastern Partnership countries, which includes Armenia. The EU has already disbursed €1.75 million under a Public Finance Policy Reform budget support program to provide immediate support to the Armenian government.
Armenia’s private sector has also mobilized in response to a call for crisis management solutions from the government. Minister of High-Tech Industry Hakob Arshakyan said that a group of engineers was already working on an innovative ventilator system. “The engineers are also planning to restore non-functioning lung ventilation machines, so any information about availability will be highly appreciated,” added Arshakyan.