Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian insisted on Saturday that Armenia is not on the brink of a serious health crisis after the daily number of new coronavirus cases registered by authorities hit a new record high.
The Ministry of Health said in the morning that 239 people tested positive for the virus in the past day, sharply up from 184 and 142 new infections reported by it on Friday and Thursday respectively. The total number of coronavirus cases thus reached 4,283.
The ministry also reported three more fatalities, raising the official death toll from COVID-19 to 55. The number does not include the deaths of 22 other individuals infected with the respiratory disease. The ministry claims that they died primarily as a result of other, pre-existing conditions.
Pashinian downplayed the official figures indicating that the spread of the virus in the country of about 3 million may be accelerating after the lifting of virtually all restrictions on people’s movements and business activity imposed by the Armenian government in March. He argued that more than 70 percent of the infected people are showing no symptoms and only a fraction of about 700 COVID-19 patients suffering from pneumonia are in a critical or serious condition.
“Even if the number of people diagnosed [with the disease] reaches, say, 10,000 but that of people suffering from severe pneumonia … is below 1,400, the situation will still be manageable,” Pashinian told a news conference.
“If the number of seriously ill people exceeds 1,400, it will be a problem,” he said. “But by and large, from the purely healthcare standpoint, I don’t consider our existing situation a problem.”
“Like I said at the last cabinet meeting, when we see that we can no longer hospitalize all people in need of treatment … that’s what will make this crisis more acute for us,” added Pashinian. “Other than that, the problem is not only and not so much the number of people testing positive [for the virus] as this uncertainty. We don’t know how many of these 2,000 patients will see their condition seriously deteriorate.”
Health Minister Arsen Torosian made a similar point when he spoke to RFE/RL’s Armenian service late on Friday.
“Parallel to the growing cases the number of [infected] citizens suffering from pneumonia is rising, but the number of citizens in a critical or serious condition is relatively stable, which is a good indicator,” said Torosian. About 100 COVID-19 patients are currently in such a condition and only 11 of them are connected to lung ventilators, he said.
Answering one of the questions sent by journalists online, Pashinian insisted that Armenia’s coronavirus-related mortality rate is “very low” by international standards. He also said: “If I look at the country’s mortality rates I can see that more people died in April last year [than in April 2020.]”
Some health experts and critics of the government warn that the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 will rise sharply if the virus continues to spread rapidly in the coming weeks. They say that the government’s recent decision to reopen cafes and restaurants and lift its temporary ban on public transport could further increase infection rates.
The government also decided this week to make it mandatory for everyone to possess a face mask and glove when walking in the streets and to wear them inside buses and minibuses.
Armenians have already been required for the past two weeks to put on masks and gloves before entering shops, banks and other offices. Many of them do not abide by this rule.
Pashinian has repeatedly stated that containing the coronavirus epidemic is not only his government’s but also ordinary citizens’ duty. He has urged them to practice physical distancing, not touch their faces with unwashed hands and use only clean tableware.
The Armenian authorities issued stay-at-home orders and shut down most nonessential businesses in late March but began easing those restrictions already in mid-April. Critics say that they never properly enforced the lockdown and lifted it too soon. This is why, they claim, many Armenians still do not take the virus seriously.
Pashinian warned on May 13 that the government may have to re-impose lockdown restrictions if the epidemic worsens. The prime minister did not mention such a possibility during his latest news conference that lasted for five hours. He declared instead that the government hopes to attract foreign tourists to Armenia already this summer.
“We hope that flights to Armenia will also resume soon and we’ll see if tourists come here,” he said. “They may come. Maybe people will start viewing coronavirus like an ordinary flu.”