While restrictions against the pandemic are gradually being lifted throughout Europe, the situation in Armenia is worsening. The capacities of hospitals are exhausted. Armenia is in a de facto state of emergency as a result of the pandemic, which could turn into a political crisis. Our colleague Eviya Hovhannisyan from Yerevan reports the current developments in the interview.
How does the situation in Armenia related to the pandemic looks like today?
Armenia (population - 2 965 300), which population is smaller than that in Azerbaijan (population - 10 135 209) and Georgia (population - 3 716 900), remains the leader among the countries of South Caucasus both by the new cases of the coronavirus infection and by the total number of coronavirus-infected patients and deaths. As of June 15, the count of the coronavirus death toll in Armenia has reached 285, while the number of confirmed cases has reached 17,064. The crisis put a growing strain on Armenia’s underfunded healthcare system. Faced with the rising number of coronavirus cases, the health authorities stopped hospitalizing or isolating infected people who show mild symptoms of the disease or none at all. The decision to treat asymptomatic patients at home is reducing the disease statistics but can lead to an increase in the number of infected people.
Taking into account the coronavirus infection prevalence, the healthcare system of Armenia failed. The three-month state of emergency appeared to be ineffective. Now the authorities are trying to put the responsibility on ordinary citizens instead of strictly monitoring compliance with the safety regulations. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and the Minister of Territorial Management Suren Papikyan blamed the population for the rapid COVID-19 spread, which is caused by the negligent attitude of local residents to the observance of anti-epidemiological rules. Moreover, Armenian Government announces that this is not the peak yet; it is expected in late June.
How did the Armenian government handled the challenges resulting from the novel coronavirus pandemic? What was their policy responses so far?
The Armenian government issued stay-at-home orders, banned public transport, shut down most nonessential businesses and started to regulate the publication of information on medical and epidemiological topics in late March. It began gradually easing these restrictions already in mid-April. The numbers of new coronavirus cases has been steadily growing since then. Despite that, in mid-May the government decided to scrap the last remaining lockdown restrictions, lifting the ban on public transport and allowing kindergartens, shopping malls, indoor restaurants, cafes, and gyms to reopen.
However, after a month of relaxations, on June 13 Armenia's government has extended the current state of emergency by another month given the "tense" situation that remains surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. From June 4, the Armenian authorities made it mandatory for everyone to wear a mask in all public areas. The government’s response consisting of obligatory use of facemasks while keeping businesses open is heavily driven by economic considerations.
What was the main failure of the government to prevent the second wave?
The official discourse did not contribute in shaping the public’s perceived susceptibility, which is determined by the subjective assessment of risk and predicts individuals’ responsibility in behaviors to reduce the risk. The contradictory official messages over the course of the pandemic contributed to reduced trust in the sources of information as well as in the government responsible for managing the outbreak, ultimately manifesting as non-compliance to recommendations. In the absence of strategic communication in the management of the COVID-19 outbreak in Armenia, the general public cannot be expected to form an accurate perception of risk. The attributed “irresponsible behavior” of citizens and the call for individual responsibility to revert the course of the outbreak in the country are examples of this failed communication. Risk communication during emergencies and crises should not only address the threat, but also how people perceive the threat and respond to it within their socio-cultural context.
Is the relaxation of restrictions the reason for the increasing COVID-19 case numbers?
During the lockdown, Armenia did not achieve the same results as other countries because the lockdown in Armenia was only visible on major streets, squares and malls and did not “reach” courtyards and residential or rural communities. The authorities never strictly enforced the quarantine and began easing restrictions on business activities on April 13, just three weeks after the start of the economic shutdown. The number of infections and deaths in Armenia has gone up continuously since the government started to gradually dismantle a nationwide lockdown, allowing virtually all sectors of the Armenian economy to reopen by May 10. When Armenia first issued a state of emergency to deal with the outbreak, residents quickly took to the restrictions. But as time has gone on, observance has become noticeably looser and enforcement of the rules more lax.
Does the Pashinyan government fears decreasing legitimacy during the current crisis?
Critics of the Armenian government are skeptical about the effectiveness of the state strategy of containing the virus. They say that only a renewed lockdown can slow and ultimately stop the spread of the disease. Armenian opposition groups regularly cite neighboring Georgia’s COVID-19 record in their intensifying criticism of the Nikol Pashinyan government’s response to the pandemic.
For this criticism, the “Bright Armenia” and “Prosperous Armenia” opposition parties accused Pashinyan of trying to intimidate and muzzle them for their growing criticism of his handling of the pandemic. The latter, as well as other more outspoken opposition groups (e.g. “Adekvat”, newly formed party - “Homeland”) hold the authorities responsible for growing coronavirus cases recorded in the country. The “Prosperous Armenia” party leader Gagik Tsarukyan demanded last week the resignation of Pashinyan and his entire cabinet. Pashinyan in response predicted the “political death” of opposition groups, by saying that they may have contributed to the rapid speed of the coronavirus in Armenia through their “subversive business activities.”
In this versatile critical situation, the first president of the republic, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, has issued a warning under the title of “Simple Syllogism.” In it he says, - “1. Coronavirus has declared war on Armenia. 2. The burden of conducting the war falls on the shoulders of the leaders. 3. Whoever is fighting against the leadership, willingly or unwillingly, betrays the nation. The domestic political infighting during the war is madness, which has no justification.” Ter-Petrosyan took the moral responsibility to sound the alarm at moments of crisis.
Despite the main concern on health, how does socio-economic risks look like?
The coronavirus epidemic in Armenia led to a drop of incomes, layoffs, and closures of enterprises. After mandatory lockdown, thousands of people in Armenia who work either abroad (mainly in Russia), or on a daily cash basis (mainly in the service or construction sectors) faced serious financial problems.
Armenian GDP depends heavily on the remittances of labor migrants (12% of GDP in 2018) Many migrant workers are stranded in foreign countries without work and thus unable to support their families back home. In some cases, they may find themselves obliged to return home, while in others they might be unable to leave their host countries. Border closures are particularly harmful to seasonal workers who usually travel abroad during spring to pursue employment related to the agricultural and tourism sectors of the destination countries.
The emergency measures imposed during the pandemic have taken a toll on Armenia’s economy. The country's GDP declined from 7.6% in 2019 to -1.5% in 2020. Some of the sectors affected most severely include light industry and tourism. The combination of travel and other restrictions abroad, which affect remittance income and domestic containment policies, could cost Armenia’s economy around USD 1.53 billion (or 11.2% of the 2019 GDP).
What are the most vulnerable groups in Armenia in the pandemic's crisis?
The most vulnerable groups in Armenia during the pandemic are the ones, that have been vulnerable before the pandemic and their situation becomes now even more difficult. These are lonely and childless elderly people, people with disabilities, displaced persons and labor migrants, multi-children families and single mothers, survivors of domestic violence, LGBTQI people, frontline workers, as well as owners of fragile small businesses. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs has approved 19 programs to counteract the economic consequences of coronavirus. Of these, eight are designed to show assistance to agriculture, tourism, SMEs, microbusiness, IT and other industries and the rest - to various vulnerable groups of the population.
Though Armenia has introduced social support measures, such as one-time payments of AMD 68,000 (approx. USD 140) for citizens with limited income, who lost their jobs between mid to late March, and some financial assistance to pregnant women and individuals working in the hospital, tourism and retail sectors, most of the vulnerable groups were let out of these support programs. At their own initiative, a number of NGOs have implemented programs to help the most vulnerable groups, such as women victims of domestic violence and members of the LGBTQI community.
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