Azerbaijan is reintroducing strict controls on movement as its COVID-19 outbreak has started to accelerate.
Starting this weekend, residents of the largest cities will be completely forbidden from leaving home between Friday evening and Monday morning, a senior official announced on June 3. That follows the introduction of new rules mandating wearing masks in public, also as of June 3.
The new restrictions were required because the disease has begun to spread again rapidly following the May 18 lifting of the previous regime, which required Azerbaijanis to get explicit permission every time they wanted to leave the house. Those rules, which had been introduced at the beginning of April, slowed but did not reverse the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In the two weeks since the stay-at-home regime was fully lifted, Azerbaijan’s numbers have only gotten worse. On June 3, there were 325 new cases and 101 recoveries. The country had a total of 2,519 active cases.
“The difference between the numbers of infected and recovered has now topped 200,” said Ramin Bayramli, the head of the state public health service, in a briefing. Reaching that number had been determined, via a “previously worked-out algorithm,” to necessitate new restrictive measures, he said.
The following day, Prime Minister Ali Asadov formally announced the new rules in a televised public address.
“Following the recommendations of doctors taking into account the statistical data, the operational headquarters [the ad hoc government body coordinating the coronavirus response] began a step-by-step softening of measures on April 27,” Asadov said. “But unfortunately, I have to note, that during the softening a large portion of our citizens were not observing the rules and recommendations for isolation. As a result, in the last few days the number of infections has sharply increased.”
The long weekend curfew – a tactic pioneered by Turkey in cities where the outbreak is most serious – will be implemented in Baku, Sumgait, Ganja, Lenkaran, and the Absheron district. “If the cases of infections increase in other cities and regions, strict measures will be implemented there as well,” Asadov said.
The curfew could remain in place for one to two months, Bayramli said.
In spite of the widening spread of the disease, officials assured the public that they had the resources to deal with the outbreak.
“In many foreign countries patients in serious or steady condition are being treated at home,” Bayramli said. “But here, patients are being placed in the appropriate medical institutions as soon as they receive a positive test result. For this reason, in spite of the number of infected people, the number of deaths is not great.”
Voluntary self-isolation doesn’t have a strong track record around the world in containing the pandemic. Georgia, by far the region’s leader in terms of a strong response to the outbreak, has succeeded with its strategy of firm restrictions that only were loosened when the numbers of active cases substantially dropped.
It’s not clear why Azerbaijan loosened its restrictions even before it had gotten the outbreak under control, though it is far from alone in the world in taking that tack.
As the numbers began to spike again at the end of May, Azerbaijan’s leading pro-government polemicist trained his ire on what he described as a widespread denialism about the disease in Azerbaijan.
“Neither statistics, nor warnings of leading molecular biologists, nor research by world-renowned scientists, nor the terrible scale of the epidemic in neighboring Russia, Turkey, and Iran were able to convince millions [in Azerbaijan], who do not want to believe in the danger of the new virus,” wrote Eynulla Fatullayev in a May 28 piece. “We are witnessing a societal psychological breakdown.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.