As Armenia’s COVID-19 epidemic continues to metastasize, with its infection rate among the highest in the world, the country’s leadership has said that it will continue to rely on voluntary self-isolation rather than reimposing a lockdown.
The country ended its two-month lockdown on May 4 and since then the spread of the novel coronavirus has accelerated rapidly.
For most of June, Armenia has been registering more than 500 new cases per day, often more than 700; it is the leader in the Caucasus and Central Asia in total cases and total deaths from coronavirus even as it has the lowest population in the region. While on some days recoveries outnumber new cases, on average the number of active cases continues to rise.
"Today Armenia is a world leader in terms of total confirmed cases of COVID-19 and new daily cases per million people,” Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said on June 26. “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.”
In spite of the dire epidemiological situation, officials have recently insisted that they do not intend to reinstate the lockdown. Virtually every enterprise is open in Armenia – restaurants, bars, shopping malls, gyms and swimming pools – albeit under new sanitary regulations mandating that staff wear masks and tables at restaurants are set apart from one another. As of June 25, the authorities had shut down 3,752 enterprises for violating the regulations.
Since May 25, everyone must wear a mask, even outdoors.
Pashinyan has suggested that Armenia’s low level of voluntary adherence to social distancing guidelines means that a legally enforced lockdown wouldn’t work.
“Some wonder why we do not resort to a total lockdown,” Pashinyan said during a June 29 press briefing. “Analyses show that if we impose a lockdown and it is not maintained properly, it will have a lasting and catastrophic impact on the economy. The lockdown may prove effective only if each of us adheres to strict safety rules in our individual behavior: if they are clearly followed, there will be no need for a new lockdown.”
Pashinyan also has suggested that the economy would suffer too much if a strict lockdown were imposed again.
"It is important to note that the government's challenge is to keep the right balance between economic and healthcare/social concerns,” he said at another briefing, on June 26. “Over 70,000 jobs were lost due to the pandemic until April, and if the lockdown was in force longer, then there was a danger that Armenia could face a social collapse. It is apparent to us that we have to do everything to learn to live alongside the virus.”
Pashinyan also said that the current regime may be toughened if the situation continues to get worse.
“As far as we have no serious changes in numbers, as far as we have not recorded an opposite dynamic, we have to choose the policy of toughening the measures and the package of the toughening can be in various directions,” he said.
But for the most part, the government is relying on voluntary self-isolation.
In a June 28 Facebook post, Health Minister Arsen Torosyan called on Armenians to implement a “conscious, voluntary lockdown” by refraining from nearly all social activities, from eating in restaurants to holding birthday parties to allowing children to play outside. “There is simply no other way out of this situation,” he said.
In a separate television interview, he pointed out the positive side of Armenia’s response: "We decided to learn to live with this situation. In the process of learning, when we had a closed economy and restricted people's movements, we developed our healthcare capacity, and that is why we have such good statistics,” he said. In particular, Armenia’s case mortality rate is about 1.7 percent, “just like Germany,” he said, when much of the rest of the world had a rate of “five to ten percent.”
As of June 30, Armenia has registered a total of 25,542 COVID-19 cases, with 14,048 recoveries and 443 deaths directly from the disease and an additional 147 deaths of people who had the disease but were deemed to have died from other causes.
Ani Mejlumyan is a reporter based in Yerevan.