Editor’s Note: The Armenian government has since decided to extend its State of Emergency as COVID-19 figures continue to climb. Health officials reported 612 new cases on Friday, June 12, 2020. The death toll stands at 258.
YEREVAN—Armenian officials have expressed cautious optimism this week that widespread adherence to new social distancing measures in addition to frantic efforts by first responders may be slowing the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who himself only recently tested negative for the virus which he and his family contracted a week ago, said on Tuesday that while the situation remains critical, there are signs that the pandemic is stabilizing. “We may have lived through hell, but just might have avoided a humanitarian crisis,” said the Prime Minister, who also signaled an extension to the country’s expiring State of Emergency.
Armenia has been the hardest hit country in the Caucasus as the virus began spreading rapidly in the month since strict lockdown measures on commercial activity were lifted on May 4th, causing health officials to raise the alarm about swiftly dwindling hospital capacity. The country ran dangerously close to that point last week when Health Minister Arsen Torosyan announced that nearly all available beds had been filled and that one would-be-patient succumbed to the virus before he could be reached by emergency crews—the first such case since the pandemic began.
According to the Armenian Health Ministry, the situation at hospitals has been alleviated somewhat, thanks in part to frantic efforts to expand hospital care capacity. Regional hospitals across the country are freeing hundreds of beds, while an additional 50 ICUs have also come online at Yerevan’s Armenia Medical Center and St. Astvatsamayr Medical Center. Torosyan announced that at least 200 more ICUs are expected to come online at various hospitals in Yerevan by the end of the month. These new spots are being staffed by newly retrained medical personnel, supplemented by specialist volunteers from the Diaspora. Efforts are being made to fill in the gaps of the country’s chronically-underfunded polyclinic system, which is now expected to bear the brunt of care for self-isolating cases. Armenia has also received medical aid from Estonia and Lithuania, while neighboring Georgia––which has one of the world’s lowest case rates so far––also formally offered assistance.
Torosyan, however, warned citizens on Facebook Live against celebrating too early. “The situation still remains critical, and we won’t be able to tell for sure whether the virus is receding for a few more days.” He also explained that the low daily rate of only 195 registered on June 8 was likely the result of one of the testing laboratories going momentarily offline over the weekend. Similarly, Wednesday’s record 775 recoveries are the result of multiple self-isolating patients over the last 14 days being discharged on a single day. He urged citizens not to fall into a false-sense of security and maintain strict adherence to social distancing guidelines.
Masks have become nearly-ubiquitous following a new rule issued a week ago to make them mandatory in public. Authorities cited results from other European countries such as Austria as evidence of the protective covering’s success in dramatically decreasing the spread of the virus. However, the government’s public health outreach has received criticism for its inconsistent messaging. Videos depicting the Health Minister advising against mask use back in March have circulated on Armenian social media. The Health Ministry responded that this was mostly due to changes in the World Health Organization’s recommendations, which Armenia has been following quite closely. However, the message now remains the same: citizens are required to wear masks when in public (especially when entering places of business), maintain a reasonable distance and wash hands regularly.
The government has repeatedly defended the decision to avoid using excessive force to enforce guidelines following the lockdown, arguing for civic responsibility and strict adherence to social distancing guidelines. A campaign led by Pashinyan to shame businesses and individuals on social media for not respecting the guidelines did garner criticism as well as vigorous debate online. “What do you expect me to do? Send in the riot cops on people for not wearing masks?” Pashinyan asked rhetorically during a Facebook Live broadcast on June 3rd. “That’s not my style. The only way to beat this virus is through understanding and mutual respect.”
In neighboring Azerbaijan, which is currently undergoing a spike in new cases despite enforcing a much more draconian lockdown for longer, authorities are facing severe backlash as police were observed using excessive violence to enforce a new weekend curfew. The curfew also had the effect of sending thousands of panic buyers to stores to purchase essential supplies on Friday. Despite these measures Azerbaijan’s daily new infection rate surpassed that of Armenia’s on Monday.
In Armenia over the weekend, special attention was paid to applying stricter guidelines on crowding in front of businesses or offices. Supermarkets, banks and post offices were among the few ‘essential’ businesses allowed to operate throughout the lockdown and continue to draw significant patronage as they remain, for many people, the only way to receive social assistance pensions, pay utilities or purchase supplies. The policy of restricting access to banks to one patron at a time was criticized for causing congestion at their entrances, which Pashinyan has even suggested as a source of at least some recorded transmissions.
Squares have now been painted on the sidewalk in front of these establishments to help maintain social distance. However, in order to reduce reliance on physical displacement to these stores, the government has been encouraging e-commerce alternatives as well as digital banking and utility payments. The Central Bank and the Ministry of Social and Labor Affairs are also working with many banks to open accounts for many pensioners who still don’t have any, in order to deposit pension payments digitally.
Country Director of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Armenia, Paolo Spantigati praised Armenia’s economic response to the pandemic during an interview with Civilnet, saying, “We see that the government is really trying to address both the supply side and demand side with this important package of initiatives totalling $300 million or 0.2 percent of GDP, which is a very good response.” The ADB adjusted its economic outlook for Armenia from a two percent growth back in April to a 3.5 percent concentration. “This is still much better than the rest of the region which will experience an economic recession of between six to nine percent,” Spantigati explained. The ADB is among several international donors and lenders including the US, the European Union and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, which has provided financial and technical assistance to Armenia’s economic response with special zero interest loans aimed at reviving some of the businesses expected to be most affected by the global recession including the tourism industry, hospitality and export-oriented enterprises.
Armenia has registered a total of 14,103 cases of COVID-19 since the crisis began, while the number of active cases has dropped slightly to 8,573. The total number of deaths due to the novel coronavirus stands at 227. At least 400 patients remain in critical condition, while another 90 are undergoing urgent intensive care.