A couple eats at an outdoor restaurant in Yerevan on May 4, 2020

Even as COVID-19 Cases Rise, Armenia Loosens Restrictions


YEREVAN (Eurasianet.org and RFE/RL) — Armenia has taken a big step toward ending its lockdown even as cases of COVID-19 in the country continue to sharply increase.

Starting on May 4, Armenians can again eat out (in outdoor seating), go shopping anywhere except a mall or other large markets, and travel without restrictions (though public transportation remains suspended). Factories of all sorts are allowed to reopen, as are hairdressers and beauty salons.

The government is also in no rush to resume public transport services in Yerevan and other cities.

All reopened businesses have to comply with safety requirements set by the Ministry of Health. In particular, employers must ensure physical distancing among their workers and customers, frequently disinfect premises, provide employees with hand sanitizers and measure their temperature on a daily basis. Those who have a fever must immediately leave their workplace and seek medical aid.

Wearing face masks and gloves is obligatory for only some categories of employees, notably waiters.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan defended on Sunday, May 3, his government’s decision to lift remaining restrictions on people’s movements and reopen virtually all sectors of the Armenian economy despite the continuing spread of coronavirus in the country. He declared that the onus is now not only on his government but also on ordinary Armenians to contain the virus.

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“We are announcing a new, decentralized phase of the fight against the novel coronavirus,” Pashinyan said during a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan and Health Minister Arsen Torosyan.

“The main reason why we are opting for such a solution is that it’s now obvious that we will have new coronavirus cases at least until March or April next year, until a vaccine is developed,” he said. “Therefore, our challenge starting from tomorrow is to do everything … so that we can live with coronavirus, rather than be locked down, because we cannot stay shut down for one year.”

“The most important nuance of the decentralized struggle is that every citizen of Armenia will shoulder responsibility for the fight against the epidemic,” added Pashinyan.

The premier renewed his calls for citizens to strictly follow social distancing rules and avoid touching their faces with unwashed hands.

He admitted that the decision to essentially end the lockdown is “creating the risk” of a faster spread of the virus.

Daily Increases of COVID-19

The Armenian Ministry of Health has already reported increased daily numbers of coronavirus cases for the last two weeks. It said on Monday morning that 121 people have tested positive for the virus in the past 24 hours, taking the country’s COVID-19 total to 2,507.

The ministry also said that four more Armenians have died from the virus, the largest daily increase in fatalities reported so far. The country’s death toll from COVID-19 thus reached 39.

According to Torosyan, 35 COVID-19 patients were in a critical condition as of Sunday afternoon.

“We can manage 3,000 to 4,000 cases,” the health minister told Pashinyan. “Right now we have 850 patients in hospitals and about 350 others [isolated] in hotels. Our objective is … to not exceed the maximum [hospital capacity] and not have to provide medical assistance in non-hospital conditions.”

Torosyan repeatedly warned last week that the health authorities will soon be no longer able to hospitalize or isolate all infected persons. He said this will increase the risk of further growth in infections.

Critics say that the authorities never strictly enforced the quarantine and began easing restrictions on business activity on April 13, just three weeks after the start of the economic shutdown. The number of daily coronavirus cases rose significantly later in April amid a gradual reopening of more sectors of the Armenian economy.

When Armenia first issued a state of emergency on March 16 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. An analysis from Yerevan-based economist Hrant Mikaelian, using data from the Russian search engine Yandex, suggested that Armenians were self-isolating less than their neighbors in the South Caucasus.

“If the disease still gets out of control and we see mass infections and as a result an increase in mortality, then the economy is not going to benefit,” Mikaelian wrote in a blog post after the lifting of the restrictions was announced. “Social solidarity will be undermined, there will be chaos and panic in the public sphere, and the economy is not going to get any advantage from the lifting of the quarantine. So, in my opinion, it’s too early to lift the restrictions.”

On May 4, Armenia announced 121 new cases, four deaths, and 36 recoveries. In total, the country has recorded 2,507 cases, with 39 deaths and 1,071 recoveries. To date, Armenia has tested 24,942 people for the disease.

Reinfections Noted

Three people in Armenia tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks after being treated for the disease and discharged from a hospital, suggesting potential re-infection, Torosyan told lawmakers at a committee meeting on May 4 when asked whether or not re-infections have been recorded.

“Unfortunately such cases were recorded, including in Armenia. But there is a big academic debate going on about this. And every day we are receiving updated scientific information on whether or not these were re-infections, meaning the patient was treated and then contracted the infection again, or whether it was simply a de-activation of the virus in the body, and then re-activation, and we were unable to detect the virus in a de-activated state because the patient was asymptomatic and the swab didn’t contain the virus. Or the most likely case is that this is the non-active particles of the virus in tissues, when the virus is not multiplying, but its DNA is present in the cells, and we simply detect it upon testing,” Torosyan said.

These three people have been quarantined as a precaution to rule out potential spread of the disease.

Since it is unclear at the moment whether or not recovered patients are immune to the coronavirus, Torosyan urged them to maintain all precautionary and safety rules like others.

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