Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian reaffirmed on Friday his government’s plans to gradually reopen more sectors of Armenia’s economy, again insisting that the coronavirus epidemic in the country is “manageable.”
Pashinian cautioned, however, that the “return to normal life” will be conditional on employers and other Armenians taking necessary precautions against the highly contagious virus.
“As long as a vaccine has not been developed, coronavirus will not disappear and we will have infected people,” he said in a televised address to the nation. “Accordingly, our strategic objective is as follows: to make sure that the number of infected people is as small as possible and bearable for the healthcare system.”
“On the other hand, we cannot be endlessly locked down and live in an endless quarantine or state of emergency,” he went on. “Therefore, our strategic objective is to live parallel to coronavirus or alongside it, if necessary. We need to use the upcoming period of emergency rule for acquiring necessary skills to do just that.
“What does this mean in practice? We are step by step allowing the resumption of economic activity in various spheres but expect special responsibility from employers, who must put in place special conditions for coronavirus safety in factories, workshops and construction sites. Or else, we will have to toughen restrictions.”
For their part, workers and other citizens must strictly follow social distancing rules, avoid touching their faces with unwashed hands and use only clean tableware, added Pashinian.
The Armenian government issued stay-at-home orders and temporary closed most nonessential businesses on March 24 amid rapidly growing coronavirus cases. The ban did not apply to agriculture, food retailers, public utilities and services, banks as well as food-processing, mining and cargo firms.
As the rate of new infections slowed considerably last week the government decided to reopen some of the other sectors of the Armenian economy. Local firms engaged in open-air construction or manufacturing cigarettes, cement and other construction materials were allowed to resume work on Monday.
Pashinian said afterwards that the government is also planning to lift the ban on textile manufacturing. The export-oriented sector employs thousands of people. Textile industry executives met with Economy Minister Tigran Khachatrian on Thursday to discuss practical modalities of restarting their operations and minimizing the risk of mass infections.
The government opted for the gradual reopening of the economy despite extending the coronavirus-related state of emergency in Armenia by one month, until May 14.
“We must redouble our vigilance during the rest of emergency rule,” Pashinian said in his address. “If we do so, we will step by step return to normal life already from May 14.”
“If we don’t … the virus may spread with renewed vigor and lead us to a humanitarian disaster,” he warned.
The Armenian Ministry of Health reported in the morning that the number of coronavirus cases rose by 42, to 1,201, in the past 24 hours. It also said that a 58-year-old man suffering from other pre-existing conditions died from the virus on Thursday, raising the country’s COVID-19 death toll to 19.
According to the ministry, the daily number of people who recovered from the disease again surpassed that of new infections. Pashinian stressed the fact that the health authorities continue to use only half of Armenia’s hospital capacity in the fight against the virus.
The epidemic has already inflicted serious damage on the Armenian economy, with tens of thousands of people temporarily or permanently losing their jobs. The government has approved in recent weeks wide-ranging financial assistance to them and affected companies.
Pashinian touted on Friday the measures designed to cushion the economic impact of the nationwide lockdown. In particular, he said the government has allocated 16.5 billion drams ($34 million) for cheap credit which Armenian banks are due to provide to thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises and farmers. The government will also provide 1.3 billion drams in grants to those SMEs that have not laid off workers since March, he said.
The prime minister also pointed to a total of some 7 billion drams in one-off cash handouts planned or already paid to about 100,000 socially vulnerable citizens. They include employees of private firms forced to suspend their operations, microbusiness owners, self-employed and unregistered workers as well as some pregnant women. In addition, the government decided this week to partly compensate 515,000 households for their natural gas and electricity bills for February.
Opposition politicians and other critics of Pashinian’s government have dismissed these measures as insufficient.