Total number of people infected with COVID-19: 532
Total number of recovered: 31
Total number of deaths: 3
Parliament Adopts Bill to Track Mobile Phone Data
Parliament reconvenes to vote on the second reading of the amendments proposed by the government to the Law on the State of Emergency (SOE) and the Law on Electronic Communication that will track mobile phone data in an effort to halt the transmission of COVID-19. Justice Minister Badasyan addressed parliament and made some clarifications regarding the bill. He confirmed that all (personal and non-personal) data will be destroyed by the body collecting it. Also, it was reaffirmed that the proposed restrictions will be in place during the period of the state of emergency only. The two opposition factions, Prosperous Armenian and Bright Armenia once again were not present during the session.
The Head of the Standing Committee on State and Legal Affairs said they have given their approval of the bill. A number of MPs from the My Step party made statements after which the Deputy Minister and Warden of the Special Commission of the State of Emergency Tigran Avinyan addressed parliament explaining further the necessity of the measures. The bill was put to a vote and passed with 71 in favor.
The spokesperson of the Ministry of Health Alina Nikoghsoyan confirmed in a Facebook post that the condition of another COVID-19 patient in critical condition has improved and the patient has been moved out of intensive care.
Last Minute Parliamentary Session
In a last minute, late night special session, the National Assembly re-introduced a government bill that will allow authorities to access personal data from people’s mobile phones, including their telephone calls, text messages and their movements, purportedly to help stop the transmission of COVID-19. The bill passed in the first reading (69 in favor, one abstention). Earlier today, during the second reading of the original bill (proposed by the Justice Ministry), parliament failed to pass it because opposition parties boycotted the vote. [For more information on this morning’s session of parliament, see below].
Identifying Locations of the Virus
According to the Armenian Unified Infocenter: Confirmed COVID-19 cases in Yerevan and the provinces [marzes} are presented below. At this time, the locations (addresses) of 502 of the 532 cases are verified. The locations of the remaining 30 cases are still being clarified because there are discrepancies between their actual place of residence and where they are officially registered.
These statistics are not linked to epidemiological operations; each case has been reviewed by specialists. The map will also be publicized after the data is fully clarified.
Yerevan – 219
Aragatsotn – 10
Ararat – 113
Armavir – 51
Lori – 4
Kotayk – 88
Shirak – 6
Syunik – 8
Vayots Dzor – 1
Tavush – 2
One More COVID-19 Patient Recovers
Armenia’s Health Minister, Arsen Torosyan announced in a Facebook post that another COVID-19 patient has been discharged, bringing the total number to 31 recovered in Armenia. Torosyan also wrote that 150 people, 65 of whom were passengers of the plane from Italy have been released from quarantine.
Gas Prices, Economic Assistance and Extending Restrictions
During a press conference, Tigran Avinyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Warden of the Special Commission answered reporters’ questions about the latest COVID-19 developments in Armenia. Avinyan confirmed that the Armenian government has expressed its readiness to start renegotiations with Russia regarding the price of the Russian gas supply to Armenia. Avinyan said it is too early to know when and in what format those negotiations will take place, however, fluctuations in the market price of gas and oil give Armenia the necessary grounds to apply for price review.
Regarding the economic assistance packages, Avinyan said that many of them are not yet in the implementation stage and work on improving them will be ongoing. The same is true for the social assistance packages, said Avinyan. The government will still specify how to apply for each assistance package.
Speaking about the extension on the restrictions of movement, Avinyan said that in mid-March, the transmission of the virus in Armenia started locally and then started spreading in clusters; there are branches of infections in Yerevan and eight of the ten marzes. Avinyan said that taking into consideration the available scientific knowledge about the spread of the virus, had the government not initiated any steps to counter its spread, 89 percent of Armenia’s population would have been infected within 75-80 days after March 1 [the day the first case was registered] and in Yerevan alone, there would have been 8200 critical cases. Avinyan said the Commission to prevent the spread of the virus started working on January 30 and since then, different kinds of restrictions were introduced stage-by-stage. Restrictions on certain kinds of businesses, on movement and other restrictions have one aim – to stop the spread of the virus or the intensity of the spread, to flatten the curve. This is when one patient can potentially infect one or zero people.
Avinyan said that two blocs are working to make this happen. The first bloc is the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which since day one has been tracing possible infection sources and contact tracing.
The second bloc, which started its restrictions mid-March and moved on to a stricter regime starting March 23, is in charge of restricting certain kinds of activities like business activities and movement. Avinyan says the Special Commission believes the unified impact of these two measures will yield positive results. Avinyan says he also believes new technological solutions and the amendments discussed in parliament earlier (to the Law on the State of Emergency and the Law on Electronic Communication, which was voted down) will make contact tracing more effective. Avinyan said that he believes people who have come into contact with a COVID-19 patient would also want to know, as soon as possible, that they are at risk. The strategy is to improve these technical tracing tools to a point which would allow the government to gradually loosen other restrictions.
According to Avinyan, extending the current restrictions by an additional ten days will allow them to completely develop prevention and isolation systems and help the National Center for Disease Control and Prevention organize its work more effectively. In parallel, authorities will increase the number of tests administered and consequently decrease the restrictions. Avinyan noted that an unprecedented decrease in people’s movement was registered on Sunday, which had a very positive impact on preventing the spread of the virus.
Over the next ten days, there is a possibility that strategies will change. There will be stricter restrictions and more effective oversight. Additional manpower from other institutions will be assigned to the police force to help them carry out this oversight. Avinyan said that people should not hope that the fines [for breaking regulations on self-isolation] will be collectively forgiven; there will be individual decisions made regarding each one and with reinforced surveillance, the number of registered administrative violations is likely to grow.
According to their evaluation, Armenia is currently at the end of stage two and the beginning of stage three. “At this stage, we are planning stricter restrictions, tighter surveillance and imposing stricter sanitary hygienic protocol on working businesses,” he said. For the next stage, which they expect to enter after April 14, the Special Commission will already have perfected the existing tools that will allow them to trace the transmission of the disease and effectively impose the rules of self-isolation. Giving an example, Avinyan said that a person in self-isolation will receive a message with a link through an app and by clicking on it will be required to confirm their identity (through facial recognition tools) and confirm their location.
In the fourth stage, Avinyan said they expect to be eliminating the restrictions and if everything goes according to plan, by the end of April, beginning of May, given that the preventative measures work without fail, life in Armenia should return to normal.
Moscow-Yerevan Flights Cancelled
The Armenian Embassy in Russia announced that Moscow-Yerevan flights scheduled between March 31 and April 3 have been cancelled as of today. The statement also said that the embassy is in contact with the relevant Russian agencies and that they will notify citizens of Armenia if there is new information.
Prime Minister Pashinyan’s Facebook Live
In a Facebook live, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said he had unpleasant news to share with the country. Analyzing the situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pashinyan said that they have come to the conclusion that stricter restrictions, which were enforced a week ago, will be extended for another ten days. The reason for this is the increasing number of cases (as of today there are 532 confirmed cases; 499 people who continue to be monitored by doctors; 30 people who have recovered and three have died). The statistics are concerning, the Prime minister said and added that there are two unhelpful extreme points of view – one is to fall into a state of panic and the other is being indifferent and not taking the situation seriously.
Currently, there are 424 patients who do not have any symptoms, however, almost 90 people have pneumonia and 30 of them are in critical condition. Pashinyan said that the situation is very risky and everyone needs to take this very seriously, especially taking into consideration the global statistics. According to the Premier, the situation in Armenia is still manageable but, to drive the point home, he provided some statistics: Over 801,000 are infected (and reason to believe that this will surpass 1 million), 38,749 have died, and 172,000 recovered globally.
“We have to take dramatic steps to manage the situation,” he said. “We are forced to restrict a number of fundamental freedoms but we are not doing this with any political motivations. We are doing it to manage the situation and to eventually overcome the virus.” It was with this in mind, that the government presented amendments to parliament to the Law on the State of Emergency (SOE) and the Law on Electronic Communication. The second did not pass. Pashinyan added that the government is now looking for ways to reintroduce that bill.
He justified the need to track mobile phone data of citizens based on international experience. “We are not always sure how a person has contracted COVID-19 and who they have come into contact with and we quarantine people in these two categories,” he said. “But now we have instances when we are not sure who the citizen has been in contact with and who they contracted the virus from. With mobile phones, we can discover the sphere of contact that a person has had in the recent past.”
Pashinyan said that he is cognizant that this is not “pleasant” to anyone. “This is extremely unsettling for us, but if we don’t do this, the situation can become more unpredictable. And the party responsible for resolving those unpredictable issues is the government,” Pashinyan said.
Extending the period of stricter restrictions will have a negative impact on the economy and create social problems Pashinyan acknowledged. However, he added that he hopes people understand that these restrictions are for the safety and security of everyone.
Pashinyan noted that not everything is ideal in the country but said that anyone would be hard pressed to find a country battling the virus where everything is ideal… from the deficit of masks to the tremendous pressure healthcare systems are under. He reiterated once again that these steps being taken by the government are not in the name of narrow political interests.
He once again called on everyone to take the situation very seriously, to think about friends and family and more importantly, seniors who are at high risk. He said cases are increasing because some people are not abiding by the restrictions and some of the important tools that will work to prevent the spread is self-isolation and tracking mobile data.
One Hundred New Ventilators
The Armenian Unified Infocenter cited the Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan as saying that in the coming days, the healthcare system in Armenia will receive 100 new ventilators, 60 thousand tests and other medical necessities like masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), glasses, etc.
COVID-19 Cases on the Rise
The spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, Alina Nikoghosyan, wrote in a Facebook post that 50 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 were registered in Armenia on March 30, bringing the total number of cases to 532. Nikoghosyan said 23 patients had already been under quarantine, 24 people were part of the contact risk zone of a confirmed patient. The contact tracing of the remaining three cases is underway.
Foreign Ministry and Armenians Abroad
During a press conference, Deputy Foreign Minister Avet Adonts said that the Ministry’s priority in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic is the citizens of Armenia. The Ministry has issued a call for all Armenian citizens to refrain from traveling abroad and for Armenian citizens in other countries to immediately return to Armenia. Adonts said the Ministry has advised Armenian citizens to be in touch with embassies in their respective countries or the Foreign Ministry which, like all diplomatic missions, has a 24-hour hotline. The Deputy Minister said that this communication with citizens and diplomatic missions is essential as it helps estimate the situation and understand what steps need to be taken. The ministry has already organized several flights to Armenia to bring Armenian citizens from China, Italy and recently from Kolkata, India. This latest flight was organized in collaboration with the Special Commission and was financed by The Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin. Around 68 students and staff of the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy returned to Armenia. Adonts said in instances when there are no evacuation flights, embassies are advising citizens on how to find return routes, offering not only technical, but also financial assistance when needed.
Adonts said restrictions on movement in the given country where an Armenian citizen is, the health risks, and the scarcity of flights are complicating the organization of evacuation flights. The situation with flight connections is one of the most problematic currently: “If a week ago, we were advising our citizens to look for Aeroflot flights as one of the more predictable routes to return to Armenia, now that option is also restricted.”
In cases when the return of an Armenian citizen is not possible, Adonts said the Foreign Ministry is doing everything it its power to, if necessary and tapping into community resources, provide the citizen with the needed medication, food and sometimes even financial means.
The Ministry is also collaborating closely with the Special Commission and the Ministry of Health to secure the import of necessary medical equipment and medication. Adonts said that just today, Armenia received a relatively modest but essential supply of Chloroquine, a medication that most countries have issues procuring. Collaboration with Armenia’s international partners, namely the EU, U.S. and China has been invaluable and Adonts added that the quality of Armenia’s collaboration with Iran, Georgia and Russia in ensuring cargo transportation by land is also highly valued.
Parliament Fails to Pass Controversial Bill
Parliament session convened for the second and final reading of the Amendments to the Law on the State of Emergency (SOE) and the Law on Electronic Communication. Addressing the National Assembly, Minister of Justice Rustam Badasyan said he has seen the criticism on social media since yesterday’s session and is happy to see citizens of Armenia are conscious and protective of their personal data and freedoms and are not ready to make concessions when there is no proper explanation as to why these measures are necessary. This means no effort should be spared to convince people that at times of a state of emergency it is necessary to resort to certain restrictions of fundamental freedoms. Badasyan also said that he believes some of the criticism was also inspired by discussions in parliament that were not directly connected to the initiative. “For this reason, I would like to specifically list what this initiative is not about,” said Badasyan.
- These restrictions exclusively pertain to the SOE declared due to the pandemic. No restriction will be in force after the SOE is lifted.
- No new information will be gathered or processed. The information already available to operators will be gathered in a centralized database created to fight the spread of the virus.
- All gathered information will be destroyed after the end of the SOE.
- None of this assumes monitoring of the content of telephone conversations. Only when the phone call is made and the location are subject to surveillance.
Badasyan said the initiative is based on the success of Israel, South Korea and China, which has shown that this is one of the most productive tools in the fight against the spread of the virus.
Speaking of the criticism heard from parliament earlier as to why the amendments were not initiated earlier, Badasyan said that the law mandates that this be a last resort and could be initiated after all other regulations have proven not to be sufficient.
The Minister also said that if a person is not in the risk zone, then any data pertaining to that person can not be analyzed and that “this will be considered a criminal offence.”
“I would like to once again remind you that the values that are being weighed against one another are a person’s life and health on the one hand and the proportional restriction of some freedoms on the other,” he noted.
The Minister also said that amendments have been made to the draft since the first reading: harvesting data about phone conversations has been forbidden; the protocol on asking for and receiving information from state institutions under the purview of the Ministry of Health has been clarified; the possibility of saving non-personal data has been ruled out; it has been established that all data should be destroyed no later than a month after SOE is lifted; it has been established that people who have access to the data under the jurisdiction of state health institutions, organizations, and other health agencies are also mandated to maintain the secrecy of the information during and after the SOE; and the regulation of electronic communication has been rephrased to more clearly specify its application.
Ninety-six parliamentarians were present for the vote, however the two opposition factions – Bright Armenia and Prosperous Armenia – did not participate in the vote. Thereby the final result was: 65 in favor, 0 against, 0 abstention. As a result, the Amendments to the Law on the State of Emergency and the Law on Electronic Communication did not pass.
Updates From Yesterday
11 p.m., (March 30): Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan said in a Facebook post that the health of two COVID-19 patients who were previously in a critical condition has improved. The 40 and 60 year old patients have been moved from the emergency care unit and will continue their treatment in the ward.
8:40 p.m., (March 30): Yerevan Mayor Hayk Marutyan said in a Facebook live that the bonus payments of the Municipality staff for the month of March, about 130 million AMD, will be transferred to medical staff at healthcare facilities under the capital’s jurisdiction. Marutyan said the amount will be given to about 1800 employees of hospitals, clinics and ambulance staff. Marutyan also said that since he does not get bonus pay, he will be transferring his salary for the month of March to the bonus fund.