Armenia Extends Shutdown

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YEREVAN (RFE/RL, Panorama) — Armenia’s government on Monday, April 13, extended by one month a state of emergency which it declared on March 16 following the first cases of coronavirus recorded in the country.

The government said that serious restrictions on people’s movements and a ban on many types of economic activity imposed by it later in March are still essential for slowing the spread of the virus which has killed 14 people so far.

During the extended emergency rule the government will also be empowered to requisition hotels or other private properties for accommodating people placed under quarantine.

At the same time, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s cabinet lifted virtually all restrictions on coronavirus-related news reporting. They were already softened significantly on March 26 following strong criticism from journalists and media watchdogs.

“If further monitoring detects a rapid spread of so-called fake news we could revert to those restrictions,” Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan warned during a cabinet meeting.

The Armenian Ministry of Health said in the morning that the total number of coronavirus cases rose by 26 to 1,039 in the past day. The ministry reported comparable daily numbers of new infections in the course of last week. The virus spread more rapidly in Armenia earlier in April and in late March.

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Citing the government data, Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan, who is responsible for enforcing the state of emergency, said the lockdown is working and should further stem the spread of the disease in the coming weeks. The authorities will also step up the controversial use of mobile phone data to track potential carriers of the virus and continue to expand COVID-19 testing, he told the Armenian parliament later in the day.

“If we manage to keep the downward trend in the spread of infections, the restrictions will be revised,” Avinyan said during a parliament debate on emergency rule. Conversely, he added, the government will not hesitate to toughen the restrictions if the infection rate goes up.

Pashinyan admitted that the government’s decision on Sunday to reopen some sectors of Armenia’s economy, notably open-air construction and cigarette manufacturing, will increase the risk of an upsurge in coronavirus cases. But he said the affected companies and their workers can minimize that risk by following social distancing rules and taking other precautions.

Armenian farmers, food retailers, public utilities and services, banks as well as food-processing, mining and cargo firms have been allowed to work throughout the lockdown.

As well as expanding the circle of such businesses, the government decided to maintain its nationwide ban on public transport for the time being.

During the parliament debate, lawmakers representing the opposition Bright Armenia Party (LHK) called for the lifting of the ban. They said the government should also allow more companies — and small businesses in particular — to resume their operations. The pro-government majority in the National Assembly rejected the LHK proposals.

Armenia has confirmed 26 new coronavirus infections, bringing the total number of cases to 1,039 in the country as of 11 a.m. Monday, April 13, the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

So far, 211 people have recovered and 14 have died from COVID-19 in Armenia.

As many as 7,631 tests have been performed in the country since the disease outbreak.

Financial Assistance

The Armenian government announced on Monday, April 13, additional financial assistance to low-income families hit hard by the economic fallout from the coronavirus epidemic.

The government said it will pay half of all electricity and natural gas bills for February that did not exceed a combined 15,000 drams ($30) per household.

Garegin Baghramian, the chairman of the Public Services Regulatory Commission (PSRC), estimated that some 220,000 households will be eligible for the subsidy.

Armenia’s national utility companies already agreed, at the government’s urging, late last month not to cut off for now electricity, natural gas and water supplies to people failing to pay their bills because of coronavirus-related economic disruptions.

“Those who have utility debts [for February] will have them reduced in a corresponding way, while those who don’t will receive advance payments that will cover their next payments,” Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan said during a cabinet meeting held on Monday.

Under its broader stimulus package approved late last month, the government is also subsidizing commercial banks to provide cheap credit to small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) and farmers.

Artur Javadyan, the governor of the Central Bank of Armenia (CBA), announced on Monday that 741 SMEs, agribusiness firms and farmers have already qualified for low-interest or interest-free loans worth a total of 10.5 billion drams ($21 million).

“There were pessimistic claims that nobody is going to apply for such loans because they don’t need such aid and that a different kind of aid is needed,” Pashinyan said in this regard. “But these figures show that there is a fairly good decree of [borrowing] activity and I’m sure that we will have even better indicators … in the coming days.”

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