Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia "World Leader" in Covid-19 Cases

Critics say that officials relaxed restrictions far too early.
By Manya Israyelyan

Armenia’s government is coming under fire for its handling of the coronavirus crisis, with cases continuing to rise since the lockdown was lifted in early May.

Restrictions were relaxed with a series of steps that officials said would protect public health while reanimating the economy. However, critics argue that the measures should have been introduced gradually – and that the government is trying to shift responsibility for the handling of the crisis to the wider public’s apparent lack of adherence to protective measures.

(See Armenia Moves Out of Lockdown).

Official figures from the national centre of disease control appear to support the theory that the controls may have been lifted too early. The previous highest number - 134 cases - was registered on April 29, just before the lockdown was lifted. From May 15, the curve rose constantly until it reached a record of 771 on June 24.       

On May 21, Pashinyan - who subsequently contracted coronavirus himself - announced that “things are not going well with the pandemic,” and a week later warned that “the situation is getting worse” due to the public abandoning preventative measures such as social distancing.

In early June, as the rate of infection put pressure on an already strained healthcare system, Pashinyan again called on citizens to do more themselves to prevent the spread of the virus. He said that one of the government’s mistakes had been to place too much trust in people’s personal responsibility.

He said that “if we successfully implement this strategy [taking individual responsibility] we will not only overcome the virus but will have made a civilisational change in our society”.

Most recently, on June 26, he said, “Today Armenia is a world leader in terms of total confirmed cases of Covid-19 and new daily cases per million people. This is a serious problem for us, for all of us, but there is a greater problem which causes this problem. There is no understanding of the seriousness of the situation in Armenia.”

With pressure on its health care facilities mounting, Armenia received medical aid from European countries include Poland and Italy in recent weeks.

But minister of health Arsen Torosyan told reporters that boosting hospital capacity was not enough to make a difference if the public did not follow social distancing and hygiene standards.

“Only containing the number will solve the problem, through our collective behavior,” he said.

Some critics interpret such statements as attempts to avoid responsibility by placing the blame for the crisis on the wider society.

Daniel Ioannisyan, project manager at the Informed Citizens’ Union NGO, said that it was ultimately fell to the government to deal with such a large-scale crisis.

“The non-serious attitude and poor public communication of the government is to blame for the pandemic situation in Armenia,” he said. “The authorities should know the awareness level of their societies and take proportional measures.”

Former prime minister Hrant Bagratyan said that while he believed the early lifting of restrictions had been unwise, the central problem was the lack of a systemic approach to dealing with the crisis.

“The responsibility lies with the acting authorities, on behalf of Pashinyan and President Armen Sarkissian, who is the guarantor of society’s health and safety according to the constitution,” Bagratyan told IWPR.

Narek Veranyan, a vascular surgeon and research fellow at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in California, said that restrictions had been abruptly removed all at once, before the number of hospitalised cases had been stabilized.

While the lockdown was initially highly efficient, he continued, after a while “it was not properly followed by many people and this was not met by appropriate measures by law enforcement”.

He said that the authorities should have put more pressure on the public to cooperate with regards to preventive measures such as wearing face masks and social distancing.

“The Armenian government was ‘too democratic’ in the management of this pandemic during the state of emergency,” he concluded.

Pandemic expert Mary Ter-Stepanyan, associate professor at Yerevan State Medical University, said that while it was difficult to assess if lifting lockdown early was the direct cause of the current spike.

However, she also said that maintaining stricter regulations would have certainly have made the situation easier to control.

“From a pandemic point of view, the numbers could have been fewer if the lockdown was followed with more stringent and more justified measures,” she continued. “The more interactions, the more cases. Airborne viruses require a source of virus. If the source is not controlled, the virus will be transmitted.”

Armenia now has the most cases and total deaths in the Caucasus and Central Asian region, although it has the smallest population.

Former minister of health Ararat Mkrtchyan, however, said that the government’s steps had been perfectly adequate.

“It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of measures taken towards airborne viruses, because the factors that contribute to their spread are many,” he said. “We entered the pandemic process late, therefore the curve of infections and death toll in our country is extended.”   

Deputy minister of health Lena Nanushyan said that there was “no research-based, adequate data to carry out comparative analyses” with other countries in the region.

Going forward, she continued, “We need to ensure the stringent enforcement of the rules, increased testing, more campaigns to raise public awareness. It’s also important that we increase medical service availability, staff capacity improvement, supplying necessary tools and protective means to medical facilities.”

Hovsep Khurshudyan, head of the Free Citizen Civic initiatives support centre, said that the trouble had started with the delay in imposing restrictions due to continued campaigning for the constitutional referendum in March.

Armenia registered its first case of Covid-19 on March 1, and instituted a nationwide state of emergency on March 16. Schools and all non-essential businesses were closed, social gatherings were banned and a 14-day self-isolation period introduced for anyone entering the country. On April 13, with more than 1,000 cases, the state of emergency was extended for another month.

Veranyan added that lifting numerous restrictions simultaneously had also been a mistake, and that the authorities should have adopted a step-by-step approach.

Now, he continued, a bigger concern was the rampant disinformation that continued to surround the pandemic.

“Covid-19 is a new disease,” he said. “Initially there was a lot of uncertainty about the mode of its transmission, as well as effectiveness of previously known general preventive measures, and this led to a significant debate in the society - negatively augmented by many locals with political agendas as well as conspiracy theories.”

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.