Pashinyan Meets with WHO Representative as Pandemic Starts to Loosen its Grip

YEREVAN—Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan expressed on Tuesday renewed optimism that the latest health and safety procedures adopted in Armenia were beginning to positively affect the epidemiological situation—which has until now remained critical.

Referring to the medical system’s care capacity in a Facebook Live address to the nation, the Prime Minister said that “as of [June 21], there are no more backlogs for patients awaiting critical care.” The country had suffered its first non-hospitalized COVID-19 casualty earlier this month when a medical team failed to reach a man in time, as several dozen critical cases awaited access to care. 

PM Nikol Pashinyan during a meeting with WHO Regional Director Michel Thieren, June 24, 2020

Since then, the Ministry of Health has worked to greatly expand both critical and long-term care capacity for COVID-19 treatment, which included the retrofitting of existing medical facilities, the construction of new purpose-built wards, and the retraining of medical staff in dealing with infectious diseases. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister welcomed World Health Organization regional director Michel Thieren, who underscored the government’s enforcement of wearing face masks and avoiding mass gatherings. According to the prime minister’s office, Thieren, after visiting several hospitals in the country, was impressed by the overall medical response. Also this week, medical personnel were reinforced by the arrival of medical teams from France, Lithuania and Russia. 

Prof. Papazian, the Franco-Armenian doctor at the helm of a second French humanitarian mission, said that his 15-member team has been extensively trained in intensive care medicine and is ready to help. According to High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs Zareh Sinanyan, Wednesday’s arrival at Zvartnots was sponsored by the French Embassy in Yerevan, while the previous one was subsidized by USAID. “It seems like we don’t have a shortage of international doctors willing to come,” Sinanyan said. 

Dr. Laura Federeci, one of the intensive care medics on Papazian’s team, learned about this second mission on a special Facebook group for reanimation specialists and insisted on joining the team. “When the situation was critical in France, we too were greatly appreciative of the assistance provided by Italian and Chinese specialists. Now it’s our turn to share our accumulated experience with our Armenian colleagues,” said Dr. Federeci. 

The Ministry of Health has been coordinating these successive international missions to briefly overlap with each other so that incoming doctors could have a chance to meet and learn from the outgoing team and pass on knowledge, while collaborating with local Armenian doctors. “The international medical missions have been quite effective,” says Dr. Grigor Manucharyan, director of Saint Gregory the Illuminator Medical Center’s Intensive Care Unit—one of the main medical facilities treating COVID-19 cases.

In addition to increased care capacity, Health Minister Arsen Torosyan attributed the improving epidemiological situation in the country to widespread respect of social distancing guidelines. 

Armenian authorities have been hard pressed to enforce these measures since authorities lifted most restrictions on freedom of movement and business activities on May 4. The Pashinyan government’s reluctance to employ heavy force to maintain lockdowns—instead relying on appealing to the public’s sense of social responsibility—has been criticized from all sides of the political spectrum for causing a spike in contagion. The month of May saw the number of new COVID-19 cases jump rapidly, peaking on June 7 with a record 766 cases. However, since then, the daily infection rate has continued a steady drop.

“The number of new cases seems to have flattened at an average of 400 new cases a day over the last two weeks,” Torosyan said, despite daily testing doubling in that time period. Torosyan also announced that the first batch of domestically-produced PCR tests are now being distributed to healthcare facilities allowing for testing on a massive scale. “This is a very important step forward for our medical science capabilities,” the Minister announced on Facebook. While the situation at critical care facilities has significantly improved, the number of overall recoveries has rapidly grown, reaching 10,797—surpassing the number of total active cases since the pandemic first hit the country in March.

Still, health authorities say over 600 people remain in critical or very critical condition. To that end, at least three new retrofitted medical systems are coming online this week to treat any new cases. But, the Prime Minister warned that “the ability of the healthcare system to expand capacity is not limitless,” and he once again urged citizens to “double, trible, quadruple vigilance.”

Pashinyan once more defended the decision to lift most lockdown measures in early May, citing recently published economic indicators and labor statistics. “The latest global figures confirm the need to develop a strategy to live with the virus,” he said. According to him, the pandemic and ensuing lockdown wiped out over 70 thousand Armenian jobs. However, over 50 thousand of those positions have been recovered since lifting the lockdown, with the remaining 20 thousand expected to be recreated in the coming weeks. “These figures, extrapolated from taxation forms filed by business owners themselves—while surprising—should not be taken as evidence that Armenia has surpassed economic hardship, but it does indicate the start of a recovery,” Pashinyan cautioned. 

As of Wednesday, Armenia has recorded a total of 21,717 cases. A total of 10,797 of these patients have since recovered while 10,404 cases remain active. The death toll as a direct result of complications from COVID-19 stands at 386 people.

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for your reporting! I appreciate your well-written and concise articles, Raffi.

    Although a week has passed since your report, I don’t see any flattening yet. It’s hard to believe that the virus is “losing its grip” when the positivity rate hasn’t budged from 30-40% for a month. That’s outrageously high, higher than Qatar and Chile, which top the global list. It’s ten times higher than the US and Russia. Whether they do 1200 or 2000 tests, the results still come back the same: consistently one-third positive COVID infections. Does that mean we should multiply the case count by ten to get a realistic assessment of the situation? Considering that multiple negative tests should be attributed to the same person to prove their recovery, that makes the positive result even more worrisome.

    Also, I am surprised the death rate is significantly lower, and I don’t know if that means the strain here is less potent, if the medical staff are doing an outstanding job, if genetics are producing a different outcome, or something else. Honestly, because there is no journalism here from medical experts, I’m not confident that the “deaths in patients who tested positive for COVID but died from other complications” are assessed accurately, or that non-tested fatalities from people who died at home are being factored in. I’m surrounded by older neighbors whose lungs are seriously incapacitated. So much of the population here is at risk, but I have little confidence they’d ever get tested.

    I don’t know if you’re drafting it already, but I’d really like to hear some perspective from the foreign doctors who are assisting here.

    • The curve *is* flat though, and it has been for the last 3 or 4 weeks (with new cases averaging at between 4 and 600/day) – meaning that it hasn’t exponentially grown. I think what you meant to say is that the numbers haven’t dropped yet. I suspect this is because increased testing means they’re catching more of the “asymptomatic” cases, and in the next couple of weeks, as these get factored in, you’ll see a bit of a drop.

      As for the really low death rate (comparatively obviously) I think it has almost everything to do with hospital care. Most death waves we saw occur in the US, France, the UK and Italy were the result of hospitals being overwhelmed and not being able to help enough patients at the time. Armenia has done some amazing work expanding its medical response system (remember that the medical system has been severely underfunded for decades) and managed to help.

      Also, I suspect that Armenia learned from countries where the death waves hit earlier, so they had some time to prepare.

      I’m no expert though

      – Doug

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