Medical personnel take the temperature of a resident near Vagharshapat

Armenia Institutes State of Emergency, Restricting Gatherings and Media Coverage

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YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Armenia instituted a state of emergency in response to the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak, banning gatherings of more than 20 people and restricting media coverage of the disease.

The 28-day state of emergency was issued at a cabinet meeting on the afternoon of March 16. It heavily restricts any public gatherings including protests, religious events, concerts, weddings and funerals. It also forbade the entry of foreigners who had been in countries heavily affected by COVID-19 and gave the authorities broad power to implement other restrictions as needed.

There will also be sweeping restrictions on what media can report about the novel coronavirus. “Information about people suspected of carrying the virus or information about their examinations, the number of cases [of the disease], any content that can raise panic, will be banned,” said Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan. “Only information from official sources can be published, including on the internet, with a link to the source.”

As of March 16, Armenia had recorded 72 cases of coronavirus.

Pashinyan and other senior government officials on March 17 called on citizens not to buy more food and essentials than they need, assuring the public that Armenia has no shortage of supplies.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at the March 16 government meeting

In a live broadcast on Facebook on the first full day of a 30-day state of emergency declared last night to slow and contain the further spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Pashinyan ascribed rising food prices to panic buying.

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Reports of major instances of panic buying in supermarkets across Armenia first appeared in media on Monday within hours after the Pashinyan government announced a set of limitations, including a ban on public gatherings and the possibility of restricting people’s travel due to epidemiological conditions.

Gegham Gevorgyan, chairman of the State Commission for the Protection of Economic Competition, also confirmed that Armenia is provided with the necessary amount of food. He said that mainly groceries have been in great demand in recent days.

As for the level of prices, the head of the anti-trust body said: “I think that apart from the monitoring of prices it is also important to ensure uninterrupted supply of stocks to exclude shortages. I assure you that at this moment we have no such problem.”

Pashinyan also assured the public about a stable situation in the financial market. “[The financial market is strong] especially after our results last year when our international reserves reached a record level, and the Central Bank purchased and stocked an unprecedentedly large amount of foreign currency. So, we will have no problems,” the head of the Armenian government said.

“I am convinced that we will come out of this situation as winners, that we will become much more proud and stronger, much more viable, competitive and competent,” Pashinyan said.

On March 16 Pashinyan visited several supermarkets and stores in Yerevan to monitor the situation connected with supplies and prices. During a live broadcast on Facebook he registered that shelves at all places were full of the usual assortment and found no change in prices.

Pashinyan also walked into three pharmacies in the city center only to find that none had alcohol-based hand sanitizers in stock. Only one of the three pharmacies had medical masks on sale.

As of late afternoon Armenia has confirmed 72 coronavirus cases. Officials say Armenia’s first COVID-19 patient identified on March 1 has recovered.

In addition, Armenia has evacuated dozens of its citizens from coronavirus-hit Italy on board a plane operating a charter flight that arrived in Yerevan from Rome early on March 16.

The Armenian government published a video on Monday showing passengers, all of them wearing protective masks, getting off the plain in Yerevan’s Zvartnots Airport.

Medics in protective gear and other emergency services met the 67 passengers, of all whom are said to have been placed under 14-day quarantine.

Another video published by Armenian Health Minister Arsen Torosyan late on Sunday showed that all passengers had been given protective masks before boarding the plane in Rome.

In announcing the arrangement of the charter flight last week, the Armenian government said all of its passengers would be immediately isolated and quarantined to prevent the possible

Government Deliberations

In the cabinet meeting on Tuesday, March 17, which was broadcast live, there was some debate over how strictly to restrict entry in and out of the country. Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatskanyan proposed a 30-day ban on international flights, which was deemed too strict.

“There is life after coronavirus,” said Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan. “Don’t be so sure,” replied Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, with a laugh.

Armenia’s neighbors also tightened their borders in response to the growing outbreak. The region first began to institute restrictions on February 24, following a heavy outbreak of COVID-19 in Iran. The closures and restrictions sharply increased over the weekend, as the illness spread dramatically in Europe and the US, even as it seemed to be spreading more gradually in the Caucasus.

Georgia closed all of its land borders to travelers (cargo can still pass), and barred all foreigners from entering the country for a two-week period starting on March 18. The government closed the country’s ski resorts and Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia said the government was considering closing all restaurants, cafes and bars around the country. The government also recommended that Georgians over 70 years old not go out to public places. As of March 16, Georgia had reported 33 cases of coronavirus.

Azerbaijan announced that it was suspending issuance of visas for 45 days, and that foreigners entering Azerbaijan who were either nationals of or who had recently visited some of the most hard-hit countries would be required to produce a certificate showing that they had tested negative for coronavirus to enter the country. Azerbaijanis coming from those countries would be put in quarantine for 14 or 21 days. As of March 16, Azerbaijan had registered 23 cases of the disease.

But Armenia’s response was the most aggressive.

Concern in the country was heightened after several people in Echmiadzin, a small city just outside Yerevan, were infected by a woman who had recently returned from Italy and then attended an engagement party in the city where she infected more than 10 guests. Pashinyan said the woman had returned to Armenia on February 29, before stringent screening measures had been implemented. Ministry of Health doctors had questioned her about her travels but she hid her sickness from them, he said. Eighteen of the country’s confirmed cases of coronavirus were registered in Echmiadzin, and residents of that city will now be able to leave town only after a health check.

One attendee at the party was an air traffic controller at the country’s main international airport in Yerevan, and starting on March 15 the entire air traffic control team was being isolated at the airport but continuing their work.

Pashinyan himself was tested for coronavirus after having met someone at a campaign event who later turned out to have the disease. His wife also had recently met with Brazil’s first lady, who was feared to have been exposed to the disease. The couple self-quarantined in the resort area of Lake Sevan for several days pending the results of the test, which came back negative.

The prime minister also had earlier suspended the campaign for a referendum on dissolving the constitutional court, which has become Pashinyan’s top political priority. He had initially announced that he would take leave from his job to campaign full-time on the referendum, but on March 12 announced that he would return to work. As a result of the state of emergency the referendum itself, which had been scheduled for April 5, was postponed.

Sunday masses went on around the country virtually unaffected. “The mass is sacred and the mass heals,” one priest, Ter-Ghazar-Qahana Petrosyan, told local news site medialab.am. “The mass has carried us through plagues and scourges for 2,000 years.”

Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan said that Vice-Premier Tigran Avinyan, who has so far led government efforts to contain the spread of the disease, will be placed in charge of coordinating measures connected with the state of emergency.

According to the declared state of emergency, Armenian citizens will be allowed to leave the country only by plane on condition that upon their return they will enter quarantine or self-quarantine. Entry for foreigners is to be restricted upon recommendations of the Health Ministry based on the current epidemiological situations in countries or territories in question. All arrivals in Armenia will be screened for their health condition and placed under quarantine if they exhibit coronavirus-like symptoms.

In addition, residents from Italy, China, Iran, South Korea, Japan, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are banned from entering Armenia. Citizens of Armenia returning from those countries will be quarantined for 14 days.

Under the decision, authorities are also empowered to set up checkpoints around Armenia, restricting travel of citizens based on the results of medical screenings for coronavirus-like symptoms.

Assemblies and strikes are to be prohibited throughout Armenia. “Mass events” involving more than 20 people, including religious ceremonies, concerts, exhibitions, displays, theater performances, sports, cultural, educational and entertainment events, celebrations and memorial services, can also be banned under the provisions of the state of emergency.

The measure also implies the possibility of regulation of attendance at family occasions like weddings, birthday parties and funerals upon decisions by the authorities.

Schools, universities and kindergartens will remain closed, with remote learning options allowed.

Citing the need to prevent “panic-mongering”, the government has decided that media reports and posts in social media on some specific aspects of the coronavirus-related situation will have to reflect official reports, and that information reported “in violation of the provisions of this clause must be subject to immediate removal by persons who reported it.”

Pashinyan called on citizens to remain calm. He said that the country has a sufficient supply of food to last it for at least a month even in the unlikely event of all supply chains being cut because of the global pandemic. He asked citizens not to resort to “panic buying.”

The prime minister also assured the public that, if necessary, his government has the capacity to provide more means and effort to ensure due quarantines for those suspected of having been affected by the virus.

Armenia’s market sellers have thus far seen a muted effect from the virus.

At the GUM market in southern Yerevan, one of the city’s largest, most stall owners said they had not experienced major disruptions in trade.

“Most of our stuff is Armenian, so we don’t have many problems,” said Eduard, 62, who sells produce. “Some citrus fruits, grapefruit mostly, is [harder to acquire] now, but not much else.”

And Baregam, 36, had no fears about the quality of the various spices he sells that come from coronavirus-besieged Iran. “Everything is checked thoroughly at the [Armenia-Iran] border,” he said.

The full extent of Armenia’s border closure with Iran remains unclear. While Pashinyan’s comments imply that cross-border movement of people is still possible with a visa, other sources say the land border will be fully closed until March 24.

The measure come after the number of cases originally brought to Armenia from Iran, Italy and France reached 30 on March 16, with more than half of them linked to a single community.

Late on Sunday Armenia’s authorities already stepped up control in Vagharshapat (Echmiadzin), a town with a population of some 45,000 situated about 20 kilometers to the west of capital Yerevan.

Exits from Vagharshapat have been limited to only three, with medical screening of commuters conducted at checkpoints to prevent the possible spread of the disease.

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