Update (5/14/2020): Since going to press, the Armenian Government has voted to extend the current State of Emergency situation by one month until June 13, 2020 at 5 PM Yerevan time. In addition, public transit, indoor restaurants and shopping centers will be permitted to resume activities on May 18 provided that strict social distancing measures are respected.
YEREVAN—Authorities in Armenia will maintain the current level of social restrictions for the time being despite a recent spike in daily COVID-19 infection rates in the wake of last week’s partial reopening. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told viewers in a Facebook Live broadcast on Wednesday morning that the latest figures demonstrate that “the dangers of this virus seem to have dropped out of public interest” as citizen compliance with social distancing guidelines remains sporadic.
The Prime Minister defended his government’s decision to begin the process of phased loosening of civil and economic restrictions as necessary for avoiding a recession and concomitant social anxiety, as new infections are projected to continue until a vaccine becomes widely available in the coming months. Economic activities in some key export-oriented industries resumed on April 15 following nearly three weeks of visible slowdown in the infection rates since the strict stay-home rules were announced on March 24. By then, Armenia had recorded a higher rate of recoveries (54) than new cases (28) for the first time since the crisis began—a milestone upon which most other countries have set conditions to loosen restrictions.
However, in the following weeks, the rate of new infections continued to creep steadily upwards. Since the second phase of restrictions was relaxed on May 4, the infection rate has leveled out somewhat at an average of 133 daily cases, while the average recovery rate over the same period was 47. This phenomenon mirrors that of several other countries, including Germany and South Korea, which having successfully “flattened the curve” are now witnessing an uptick in infection rates immediately after loosening movement restrictions.
Some have blamed these figures on uneven enforcement of the lockdown as well as a general disregard for social distancing convention by many among the public and several businesses. Epidemiologist Hasmik Ghazinyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service that supermarkets are partially to blame for their refusal to abide by the Health Ministry’s guidelines or regularly disinfecting the premises.
Several images have been shared on social media showing cramped conditions in grocery stores with patrons and staff alike seldom wearing gloves or masks. Pashinyan himself addressed the issue, complaining once more of regularly witnessing scenes of people shaking hands or kissing strangers in the streets.
The Prime Minister reiterated on Wednesday that the public needed to take this responsibility seriously by respecting social distancing rules and maintaining basic hygiene (a statement which was met by accusations of “passing the buck” by some critics). “By following the three simple rules of social distancing—wearing masks when speaking to strangers in confined spaces, avoiding touching the face and disinfecting tools before use,” Pashinyan told viewers, “you could help stem the tide of infection and avoid the need for yet another round of lockdowns.” He also retorted that no amount of police enforcement would succeed if the people didn’t appreciate the need of adapting social behavior to the realities of the pandemic.
Health Minister Arsen Torosyan said earlier that despite the worrisome trend, the healthcare system remains capable of caring for all infected patients, whether they require hospitalization or show no symptoms at all. But during a weekend visit to the Saint Gregory the Illuminator Medical Center, he noted the lack of vacancies in the intensive care unit. A total of 1,500 ICU beds has been made available throughout the country with room for an additional 3,500 in other wards or converted hotels. That’s up from 350 beds in March when the pandemic first reached Armenia. A little over half this capacity is currently being occupied by 2,149 patients, while 1,500 patients have already been discharged. The virus has claimed the lives of 48 out of the 3,718 total cases registered in the country so far.
Pashinyan later live-streamed himself walking through the streets of the Armenian capital surrounded by his security detail (all of whom were wearing masks and gloves) exchanging pleasantries with passers-by and inspecting local businesses for compliance. Addressing nearly 10-thousand live viewers, the Prime Minister warned that conspiracy theories questioning the lethality of the pandemic and a false sense of security stemming from Armenia’s relatively low number of cases have led many to unwisely disregard social distancing protocols. “Please try to keep a two meter (6 feet) minimum distance, brother,” he told an enthusiastic onlooker. “God forbid, you accidentally catch something and then infect an older loved one,” he said.
As of May 4, most businesses have been permitted to resume commercial activity provided that strict protocols are respected. Restaurants with outdoor seating have also reopened while others are open for takeout and delivery only. Several airlines, including Ryanair, Air France, Austrian Airlines and Qatar Airlines have announced the resumption of service in the coming weeks. Bars, night clubs, shopping centers, cinemas, concert venues, cultural sites and public transit remain closed. Over 1.1 million economic victims of the pandemic have also received government assistance.