YEREVAN—Most businesses across Armenia have been allowed to reopen on Monday as the country relaxes COVID-19 related lockdown measures even further. According to Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan, who heads the anti-pandemic task force, large malls and shopping venues where people congregate in numbers will remain closed for the time being, as well as bars, nightclubs and some restaurants that do not offer outdoor seating. Schools and cultural sites will not reopen for the moment as well. Public transport, both within Yerevan and between cities, have not been given the go-ahead to resume operations either.
Avinyan further explained on Sunday that all businesses are required to operate under strict health and safety guidelines formulated by the Health Ministry, mandating face masks on employees, limiting the number of patrons inside stores or restaurants and regularly disinfecting various surfaces.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who also appeared in Sunday’s Facebook Live broadcast with Avinyan and Health Minister Arsen Torosyan, was careful not to call this “a victory just yet, but rather a new phase in the struggle.” He clarified that the decision was based on re-examining data from around the world and concluding that the virus could not be completely stamped out until a vaccine becomes widely available.
The pharmaceutical research company Moderna, co-founded by Armenian-American entrepreneur Noubar Afeyan, announced a 10-year manufacturing agreement with the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Lonza that could result in the production of one billion doses per year. Moderna is one of several research laboratories which have made critical progress in the race to develop a vaccine for the COVID-19 pandemic over the past week.
Public health experts in Armenia had hoped that warmer spring weather would slow transmission rates, but data from the United Arab Emirates, which has enforced some of the world’s most draconian lockdown measures before relaxing them, indicates that such a slowdown might not happen. “The strategy going forward is to apply new hygiene standards and adapt to life with coronavirus, since, I’m sure you’ll agree, the prospect of life under lockdown for the next year is not a realistic one,” the Prime Minister continued. Pashinyan also mentioned that had data suggested that the virus could be thoroughly defeated with one more month of lockdown “under the strictest conditions,” they would have done so, but projections suggest otherwise.
While Armenia managed to successfully slow the spread of the virus after applying strict lockdown measures in late March, the number of new COVID-19 cases has steadily creeped up again in the last week of April. These new cases have been attributed to more robust testing methods, but also Easter holidays and warmer temperatures have encouraged more and more citizens to break lockdown protocols. Critics, however, have blamed authorities for inconsistently enforcing the stay-at-home rules. The Prime Minister himself had previously complained of seeing large groups of people on the street without personal protective equipment in full view of police.
Authorities have responded that they can only do so much to enforce the rules and that citizens must share some degree of responsibility for shielding their elder family members. Armenia’s relaxing of lockdown rules coincides with similar moves by other European nations which have been affected by the virus. Neighboring Azerbaijan has lifted all restrictions on freedom of circulation on the same day as Armenia, while Georgia is lifting travel bans on Kutaisi and Batumi on Tuesday and the capital Tbilisi by the end of the week.
However, Armenia continues to lead the region in terms of overall cases and COVID-19 related deaths. Over the weekend, the country registered both its single largest daily jump in new cases on April 30 with 132 confirmed. Sadly, four more people also passed away in a 24-hour period. Health Minister Torosyan mentioned that the majority of the April 30 cases resulted from people who had attended the same funeral; the general growth in cases, he explained, stems from increased mobility since the previous restrictions were relaxed as well as infections among healthcare workers which make up 320 or about 13.4 percent of all cases. “I understand that we all need to pay respects, but a certain amount of personal responsibility is in order here,” the Minister cautioned.
Torosyan reminded viewers that the point of the lockdown measures was not to eradicate the virus, but to slow down the rate of infection enough for first responders and the public health system to adapt to the novel pandemic and allocate their resources to treat patients. “In that goal, we have largely succeeded,” Torosyan said last week. In March and April, the healthcare system was able to expand its treatment capabilities to manage up to 4,000 cases. At the moment, fewer than 900 patients require hospital care, while 350 patients remain under isolated observation in hotels. The Minister added that if the numbers continue to grow, they will simply keep asymptomatic patients in self-quarantine. Armenia has greatly expanded its detection capabilities, having conducted over 25 thousand tests since the pandemic began at a rate of around one thousand tests per day. Factories across the country are also producing face masks at a rate of 200,000 a day.
The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry has also announced 15 emergency assistance packages since the pandemic began, releasing 12 billion AMD ($25 million) in funds to subsidize utility payments and unemployment insurance for hundreds of thousands of workers who have been furloughed.
Armenia has registered 2,507 cases since March 1st. In total, 1,071 patients have made full recoveries; 39 people have died. Doctors are currently treating 1,393 active cases. The State of Emergency situation remains in place until May 14.