Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian and key members of his administration caused an uproar in Armenia after clearly failing to observe social distancing during a state banquet in Nagorno-Karabakh on Thursday.
The open-air dinner party was held in the town of Shushi following the inauguration of Ara Harutiunian, Karabakh’s recently elected new president.
Official photographs of the event showed Pashinian, Armenian parliament speaker Ararat Mirzoyan, their wives and dozens of other dignitaries standing tightly around tables loaded with various dishes and snacks. None of the guests wore gloves, let alone masks.
The photos were widely circulated on social media, prompting criticism from not only opponents but also some supporters of the Armenian government. Some critics accused Pashinian of recklessness and hypocrisy.
The prime minister attended the inauguration events in Karabakh just hours after expressing serious concern over the continuing rapid spread of coronavirus in Armenia. “The situation is much more serious than we can imagine,” he warned at a cabinet meeting in Yerevan.
Pashinian again complained that many Armenians are still not complying with social distancing and hygiene rules set by the health authorities. He ordered the Armenian police to enforce those rules “more strictly.”
Responding to the uproar, Pashinian’s spokeswoman, Mane Gevorgian, insisted that the premier and his entourage took all necessary precautions against the virus during their latest trip to Karabakh.
“The banquet followed the inauguration ceremony of Artsakh’s new president during which the prime minister, his wife, government members and deputies of the National Assembly wore masks,” Gevorgian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service on Friday. “Many of them also wore gloves.”
Deputy parliament speaker Alen Simonian argued, for his part, that the COVID-19 infection rate in Karabakh is much lower than in Armenia. “Fortunately, Karabakh does not have the kind of strict restrictions that are in place in Armenia,” he said.
Simonian seemed to acknowledge at the same time that the organizers and participants of the inauguration party should have been more careful. “We all must draw conclusions and learn from our mistakes and shortcomings,” he said.
Authorities in Karabakh have reported 33 coronavirus cases and no deaths resulting from them so far. The Armenian-populated territory, which had broken away from Azerbaijan in 1991, has around 150,000 residents.
In Armenia, the Ministry of Health reported on Friday 322 new infections and 4 more deaths. The total number of COVID-19 cases thus reached 5,928.