COVID-19 Daily Briefing (March 30)

screen shot 2020 03 30 at 9 07 42 pm

Total number of people infected with COVID-19: 482

Total number of recovered: 30

Total number of deaths: 3

Parliament Session

11:00 a.m.

At the suggestion of the Government, the National Assembly held a special session today to discuss four recommendation packages proposed by the Government. Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan presented the following draft bills for the Parliament’s approval:

 

Amendments to the Law on the State of Emergency (SOE) and the Law on Electronic Communication

While presenting the bill, Badasyan clarified that, in order to halt the spread of COVID-19 and introduce preventive measures, it is necessary to make amendments to the Law on the SOE. He went on to say that, if a state of emergency is declared because of the spread of a pandemic, then certain infringements on personal data protection and privacy rights, freedom of communication and privacy rights should be allowed. These provisions would be for the duration of the SOE only and the information will be transferred to the bodies (Police and National Security Service) and individuals specified by the Government decision. Some of the data that will be gathered include information about the location of the people receiving communication services, phone numbers of those who were in direct or indirect contact with the person, as well as information about the date, start and end of the communication. The same database will also include confidential medical information. Badasyan noted that having all of this information in one place will allow relevant authorities to take a more targeted approach in case a person tests positive for COVID-19 and identify the people that came in contact with the person. The content of messages or phone conversations will not be available under this regulation.

In order to enforce restrictions on the freedom of movement during the SOE, it is also recommended to use an electronic app to check the health status of people, require them to self-isolate themselves or stay in quarantine and to exercise control over the process. Badasyan said that the proposed recommendations are based on international practice, the use of modern technologies by those countries and the registered results. He brought the examples of South Korea, where modern technologies were incorporated and Italy, where such technologies were not widely used. As of March 26, Korea had 9,341 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 131 deaths, while Italy had 74,386 and 7,503 deaths.

During the Q&A session, Badasyan reaffirmed that the personal information gathered under the proposed regulations and during the SOE cannot be used for other purposes, and if used, it will result in criminal prosecution. The process will be implemented by e-Governance infrastructure implementation unit (EKENG), which has the required technical means to gather and summarize the information received from all of the telecommunication operators in one place. The proposed recommendations allow keeping anonymized information, which can later be used as statistical data for different reasons, such as for the prevention of the spread of pandemics in the future or designing more targeted compensation packages. Gevorg Gorgisyan from the Bright Armenia Party raised concerns saying that if needed, the government can easily use the anonymized information to identify individuals through other means. Badasyan noted that personalized information gathered during the SOE should be destroyed according to the draft bill, so that it will not be possible to later use the anonymized information to extract personal information. The Minister also said that the information about the phone conversations (who a person called and when, without listening to the content of conversation), will allow them to identify the scope of person’s contact in the past 14 days, in case they test positive for COVID-19.

The regulations about gathering personal data refers to everyone (the information gathered by all telecommunication operators will be centralized in one place), while the information gathered through an electronic app refers to people who are already infected with the virus and people who came in contact with the infected people. Badasyan explained that for people who do not have smartphones and are not able to download the app or refuse to use the app, different measures will be implemented to make sure that they closely follow the regulations of self-isolation/quarantine and restrictions on freedom of movement.

Deputies also raised concerns about how the information about who the person spoke to can help the government identify the scope of potentially infected people, in case the first person tests positive for COVID-19. A person may not come in physical close contact with a person they merely spoke with on the phone. Concerns were also raised regarding the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the process, as well as concerns regarding the oversight, because the body (EKENG) collecting the information from telecommunication operators will also be destroying that same information.

Following further discussions, parliament passed the first reading on the package of draft laws (57 in favor, 24 against, one abstention). Prior to the vote, the head of the My Step Caucus Lilit Makunts said that they will take into consideration the opposition’s reservations with these amendments and that her party would also make additional recommendations before the second reading of the bill. She reiterated that the content of the calls and SMS messages will not be recorded (the proposal addresses data destruction), and that they realize that this is not going to solve the problem, but might mitigate some of the issues the country is facing.

 

Amendments to the Law On Medical Assistance and Public Services

Deputy Minister of Health Anahit Avanesyan presented a draft on amending the law “On Medical Assistance and Public Services,” which foresees refraining from performing autopsies on the deceased who have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Avanesyan said that, since this is a new virus and specifics have not been tested or fully studied yet, they will no longer perform autopsies in an effort to contain further spread, regardless of security measures or precautions. The Deputy Minister also noted that Armenia does not have the necessary conditions nor does it meet international requirements to perform autopsies in these circumstances. Additionally, funerals will require stricter security measures that include placing the body in a special disinfected bag in a sealed coffin.

The bill was adopted in the first reading (66 in favor, 16 against, two abstentions).

Government Session

12 p.m.

A special government session discussed a number of new assistance packages that the government has developed to counter the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Situation Update

Prior to the discussion, Health Minister Arsen Torosyan provided the latest updates regarding the number of confirmed cases. According to Torosyan, as of noon, there are 482 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country. Over the last 24 hours, there were 58 new confirmed cases. Of the 58 new cases, 25 were already in quarantine and had no other contacts. Among 31 cases there are a number of medical personnel who had come into contact with people infected with COVID-19 (the Minister did not provide further details) and another two are people who had come from abroad. Torosyan said they are now doing contact tracing to understand who these two people may have come into contact with and he also confirmed that among the new cases, there is one soldier.

The Health Minister also provided an update on the condition of those infected. He said that 14 patients are in critical condition and one is extremely critical, but they are hoping this patient will improve and be reclassified as critical because there is a probability that the patient will be taken off the ventilator and be able to breathe independently; another two critical patients might also be reclassified as stable thanks to efforts of the medical staff, the Minister said.Thereby at the moment, only the extremely critical patient is currently on a ventilator, who might hopefully be taken off shortly.

Torosyan said that international practice has shown that 50 percent of patients who require intubation most often do not survive because it is an extremely critical stage. The Minister said that since the numbers in Armenia are quite low, it’s difficult to make any predictions regarding survival and each case is very different. There is a young patient who is in critical condition at the moment, however, there the Minister was confident that he would improve. Each patient’s pre-existing health condition determines the outcome; most people who are infected have very light symptoms and don’t even reach a critical stage and only those with chronic health issues are at greatest risk. The Minister reiterated that all the patients currently in intensive care have chronic issues except for one patient with pneumonia, who sought medical assistance quite late in the process.

A number of people infected with COVID-19 are not hospitalized; these are generally younger patients who have no pre-existing health issues. They are being monitored by doctors in special quarantine sites or in hotels. Currently, there are 30 patients who have fully recovered.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan extended condolences to the families of the two patients who recently died as a result of being infected by COVID-19. Pashinyan noted that both patients had pre-existing health conditions, which were compounded by the virus and said that special attention must be paid to all those in Armenia who have chronic illnesses so that they do not come into contact with people who might be infected.

Defense Minister David Tonoyan said that dozens of soldiers who were in quarantine and self-quarantine have tested negative for COVID-19 and are returning to active service.

Delivery of Education

Education Minister Arayik Harutyunyan also gave a brief report about the ongoing process of distance education in the country. He thanked teachers who were able to quickly respond to the situation of school closures and said that students, teachers, principals and parents are working together as a community to ensure that the delivery of education is not disrupted. The one pressing issue is access to computers and the Internet for almost 24,000 students. The Minister said that they are trying to address this issue by calling for donations of computers and also by the international community. The PM said they would discuss this following the government session.

Economic Assistance Package

Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zaruhi Batoyan presented three additional assistance packages to alleviate problems in the labor market as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To Mitigate the Financial Consequences of COVID-19: Sixth Package

Beneficiaries of this package are all those who have been continuously employed in the private sector (at minimum from January 1-March 13), however were fired between March 13-March 30.

Assistance is provided in the form of a lump sum equivalent to the minimum monthly wage.

People who cannot apply for this benefit include:

-people whose average salary over the last two months was more than 500,000 AMD

-people who as of and up to March 30 are employed by two different companies; or have two separate employment agreements with the same company

-people who as of and up to March 30 are self-employed

-people who are beneficiaries of the RA government’s March 26 N358-L decision (the one time financial assistance that will be provided to families that have children under 14-years-old)

To Mitigate the Financial Consequences of COVID-19: Seventh Package

The goal of the assistance package is to provide support to pregnant women who find themselves in economic difficulty because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beneficiaries of the assistance package are pregnant women, who as of March 30 are unemployed and whose husband was fired between March 13-March 30 and has not been able to find a job. The assistance will be provided in a lump sum of 100,000 AMD.

To Mitigate the Financial Consequences of COVID-19: Eighth Package

The goal of the eighth assistance package is to provide support to employees and sole-proprietors, in particular:

-hotels and hotel services

-restaurants, cafes, catering services

-tourism service

-hairdressers and beauty salons

-retail stores

Supermarkets, grocery stores, cigarette and alcohol vendors and pharmacies are not eligible.

Support will be given in a one-time lump sum:
-50% of the average monthly salary for an employee for January and February 2020, but not less than the minimum wage and not more than twice the minimum wage if the average monthly salary of the employee exceeds the minimum wage;

-average monthly salary calculated for an employee for January and February 2020, if the average monthly salary of an employee is less than the minimum wage;

-10% of the turnover of the sole proprietor in the 4th quarter of 2019, but not less than the minimum wage and not more than twice the minimum wage if the sole proprietor’s 10% sales turnover for the 4th quarter of 2019 exceeds the minimum wage.

-10% of the turnover of the sole proprietor in the 4th quarter of 2019, if 10% of the turnover of the sole proprietor of the 4th quarter of 2019 is less than the minimum wage.

-Assistance is provided to the Beneficiary on the basis of an electronic application submitted on the Website www.online.ssa.am.

-The data of those who have been assisted in this event are published on the official website of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

Assistance Packages

1 p.m.

Deputy Prime Minister Mher Grigoryan said during a press conference today that with the three initiatives confirmed during the special government session, which will enter into their implementation phases soon (April 1, 2 and 9 as their deadlines), the government has so far ratified eight assistance packages. Four are social assistance packages, and four are aimed at assisting the economy.

  • The first initiative is aimed at ensuring businesses with additional liquidity. This looks at the purpose of the expense the business has, not the sphere (import of raw material to maintain production, paying employees, paying taxes). This initiative has three main tools: co-financing, refinancing and subsidies. These tools should address some of the predictable risks businesses are likely to face in a similar situation 1) currency devaluation, 2) high return rates for loans, 3) insufficient income to pay for loans or collaterals.

  • The second initiative is aimed at supporting businesses and individuals working in agriculture. In this case, the concept of co-financing is also extended to apply in case of cooperatives as well.

These two initiatives will be implemented in collaboration with the banking system and are based on making loans available.

  • The third initiative aims to support small and medium businesses 

  • The fourth is assistance to families with children below the age of 14 and who have lost their income as a result of the crisis.  

  • The fifth initiative aims at assisting businesses that did not let any employees go between January 1 and March 25 and have not decreased salaries. 

  • The sixth initiative aims to assist citizens who lost their jobs between March 13 and March 30. The assistance will be a one time installment in the amount of the minimum wage (68,000 AMD) for each person who lost their job. 

  • The seventh initiative assists pregnant women whose husband lost his job between March 13 and 30 or is unmarried. The assistance will be in the form of a one time installment of 100,000 AMD.  

  • The eighth initiative aims to assist people working in spheres that are temporarily affected and these are the hotels and hotel services, restaurants, cafes, catering services, tourism service, hairdressers and beauty salons, retail stores (not selling food, alcohol or tobacco).

Pension Delivery

3 p.m.

Old-age pensions for April 2020 will be distributed starting April 2. The pensions will be delivered to the address the pensioner is registered at. In cases where the pensioner has moved from the address of his/her official registration, the payment will be made through the post office starting April 10.

Situation in the Army

3 p.m.

The spokesperson for the Defense Ministry Shushan Stepanyan has confirmed that a new case of COVID-19 infection has been registered in the Armed Forces. She said all six cases are in the non-combat unit of the armed forces. The contract soldier has been hospitalized, his health is satisfactory and no additional people have been quarantined. Stepanyan confirmed that all contract soldiers who had been in self-isolation after returning from work trips abroad or in quarantine in connection to the first registered case have returned to service after testing negative.

Tourism Sector

4 p.m.

Head of the Tourism Committee Susanna Safaryan held a press conference today to talk about the state of the tourism sector in Armenia. Safaryan said that, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tourism sector has been one of the hardest hit and that refers to both private companies (airlines, hotels, hostels, tour operators, etc.) and sole proprietors (tour guides, etc.). She noted that the Committee has been in constant communication with representatives in the sector and they have had many discussions on how to remain solvent at a time when tourism has taken such a hit.

Safaryan presented a number of proposals to support the industry which include co-financing or refinancing of loans for companies in the sector to be able pay their expenses including salaries, utilities, rents, taxes, etc. Loans for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) will be made available to those companies that have an annual turnover from 24-500 million AMD, with a no-interest 36 month amortization, including a six-month grace period. If the company can pay the loan off before the 36th month, they will not pay any interest. Another form of support includes helping tour companies pay salaries for their employees from the minimum monthly up to 136,000 AMD/month. Safaryan said that all of this information is available on the government’s website (www.gov.am).

Safaryan mentioned that the government has been using hotels to quarantine people and said that, if there are hotels that want to be included in that measure (they must have 50+ rooms in order to keep as many people in one location as possible and should be located in Yerevan, Dilijan or Tsaghkadzor), they can present their offer (rates) to the government and this, she said, could be seen as a form of support.

 

In Other News

Armenia’s Ministry of High-Tech Industry Announces Competition

The Ministry of High-Tech Industry of Armenia presented the details of a grant competition to support efforts to overcome the challenges and prevent the spread of coronavirus in the country.

The Ministry has earmarked 22 million AMD that will be awarded to companies submitting proposals that offer innovative and effective solutions.

The bids will be evaluated in two stages. The first stage will evaluate the usefulness and feasibility of the project. Those proposals (15 in total) which get the most points by the commission, will move to the second stage of the competition. Details on the evaluation criteria and mechanism are available on the Ministry's website.

At the end of the competition, the companies that submitted the best five projects will receive grants of 10 million, 5 million, 3 million, 2 million and 2 million AMD respectively.

Bids may be submitted online until midnight on April 3 at [email protected]

 

EU Support to Mitigate Impact of COVID-19

The Delegation of the European Union of Armenia issued a statement today, promising support to help Armenia mitigate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

The full statement below:

As part of its global response to the coronavirus outbreak, the European Commission stands by Eastern Partner countries and has reallocated €140 million for the most immediate needs including for Armenia. In addition, the Commission will also redirect the use of existing instruments worth up to €700 million across the region to help mitigate socio-economic impact of the coronavirus crisis.

Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations Olivér Várhelyi said: "These are very difficult times not only for the EU, but for our partner countries, such as Armenia, as well. We have to do what we can to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on human lives and livelihoods. Today’s package responds both to the immediate needs of the health systems, as well as longer term needs to the most vulnerable groups in society and small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the backbone of the economies in the six countries”.

Responding to immediate needs:

Support to the Armenian health system: At the request of the partner countries, including Armenia, the Commission will respond to immediate needs by supporting the supply of medical devices and personal equipment, such as ventilators, laboratory kits, masks, goggles, gowns, and safety suits.

The European Commission is working with the World Health Organisation (WHO), and is deploying €30 million to ensure these necessary supplies are jointly purchased and effectively distributed to the health systems of the six countries in the coming weeks. In addition, the funds will support national health administrations to train medical and laboratory staff and carry out awareness raising measures to the wider population.

Support to the people who are most affected by the crisis, together with civic partners. The EU has made available more than €11.3 million in small grants to civil society organisations across the region. These funds are already responding to immediate needs, through the ongoing regional “Rapid Response Mechanism,” such as supporting local schools with distance learning. In Armenia, a project with the Red Cross will be launched in the coming days to support the elderly, vulnerable families, and people with disabilities.

By the summer, and as part this package, the Commission will launch the “Eastern Partnership Solidarity Programme” which will target the most affected parts of the populations through civil society support and notably sub-grants to smaller, local organisations. Additionally a new call for proposals, worth €3 million, was launched on 25 March, to support civil society organisations contributing to social well-being, including those impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Mitigating socio-economic impact of the outbreak:

Support to Armenia’s economy, notably small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

The EU is working closely with International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and relevant financing institutions from EU Member States as TEAM EUROPE providing a coordinated European response for the real economy, including SMEs, in particular through:

  • Launch of a new regional support programme of €100 million to help SMEs, including self-employed and others to easily access credit and boost their businesses after the crisis. This will be complemented by a new support programme targeting Armenian SMEs worth €13 million.

  • The EU is also exploring to mobilise over €30 million from existing programmes in coordination with the Armenian government.

  • Facilitating, simplifying, accelerating, and reinforcing €200 million worth of existing credit lines and grants to SMEs in local currency including through its EU4Business Initiative;

  • In addition, in the current crisis the EU has mobilised its major de-risking instrument worth €500 million, the European Fund for Sustainable Development (EFSD). This will rapidly provide liquidity and can be urgently deployed by IFI partners to facilitate the provision of liquidity in the EU’s Neighbourhood including through working capital, trade finance, or moratoria on debt service.

The EU is also reorienting ongoing support programmes to address Armenia’s needs to respond to the pandemic. As a result, €1.75 million has already been disbursed under a Public Finance Policy Reform budget support programme to provide immediate support to the government.

In parallel, a new Twinning programme of the Ministry of Emergency Situations in partnership with the Swedish and Lithuanian civilian protection agencies has been approved and will start soon to improve civil protection and disaster risk management. The Commission also stands ready to provide assistance to Armenia through TAIEX, its peer to peer instrument, by using EU Member States’ expertise, experience and examples of good practice on assessing emergency preparedness response schemes and health systems.


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