A few days after the Four Day April War erupted in 2016, I wrote a piece on my personal blog called “Peace,” which may at first seem counter-intuitive. I wrote how, over the past 72 hours, our lives had been turned upside down and if there was ever a time for a concerted effort, that was it. We needed to put aside differences and “come together like the mountains of this small plot of paradise lost but found again.”
Having grown up in a peaceful country like Canada, unaccustomed to such fear and uncertainty, those first days and weeks of April 2016 were crippling. I understood even more profoundly how privileged and lucky I was to have been spared the ugliness of conflict and war. But what I did know was that, in the middle of an unrelenting storm, the only way to survive was to come together. I wrote that the boys on the borders would do their job if they knew they had a strong, resilient and committed nation behind them. They could endure sleeplessness, hunger, cold, fear, anger and bullets if they knew that every single one of us was doing something in the service of the safety and security of both our republics.
Those words, for me, are just as relevant today as they were four years ago. This time, the adversary isn’t sitting across the Line of Contact. We can’t see it or touch it or hear it advancing. However, it is no less deadly and we can’t afford to let our guard down. It is ripping families apart and here, in our small plot of paradise lost but found again, it is ripping us apart as a society.
Once this nightmare is over, because one day it will be, it will be time for a reckoning and a reset. A time for everyone to reflect on what has come to pass, how they conducted themselves and what kind of responsibility they bear for the final outcome. Certainly, this is something that first and foremost the government of Armenia will have to face, but so will each of us, as individuals, as family members, friends, citizens, journalists, organizations and members of political parties. We will be judged by what we said, or didn’t say, how we acted and how those actions played out in the public sphere.
There is ample evidence to show that the authorities, while acting quickly at the beginning of the pandemic, were weak in enforcement; while they said one thing, sometimes they did another; while they implemented a timely lockdown, they lifted it before the numbers of infected began decreasing and yes, their messaging was often contradictory. There is equally substantial evidence that the past 30 years of ineffective governance and rampant corruption left us with public services and institutions that had to be rebuilt from the ground up. While my own family has been lucky to have had competent, caring doctors over the past two decades of living in Armenia - from stitches, to births, to operations - we have seen up close and first-hand the condition of many hospitals and primary healthcare centers (polyclinics) in Yerevan (rural areas are even worse off), the lack of proper supplies and equipment and the dismal salaries of medical staff.
And then there was the outright disinformation campaign by conspiracy theorists (which are not only a problem in Armenia), one of whom in particular went live on Facebook as she traipsed around Yerevan pointing out “5G” towers that were purportedly responsible for the outbreak of COVID-19 [viruses cannot travel on radio waves and Armenia does not even have a 5G network, nor has there been any work done to build one] and then began posting photos of said towers. Then, of course, there were the anti-vaccine warriors, who claimed it was a fake pandemic meant to serve as cover for microchipping people. Others tried to convince you that wearing a mask would cause fungus to grow in one’s respiratory system, and on and on. Regardless of geography, you’ve probably heard these before. Media outlets aligned with the previous government helped push these narratives to sow tension and distrust, and by doing so, indirectly persuaded people to disregard the Health Ministry’s guidelines.
It’s difficult to say if this disinformation campaign contributed to Armenia’s high rates of infection, but that it complicated the work of health authorities, creating confusion and soaking up resources into whack-a-mole fact-checking, is obvious. I just have one question: Who benefits? Former political forces and their patronage networks, by continually and incessantly discrediting the government as it tries to adjust strategies and policies as it works up the learning curve? Media outlets with their “news that stunned the world” headlines racking up tens of thousands of views and likes? It certainly doesn’t help the medical staff on the frontlines get home to their families sooner. It doesn’t help the family members who were hospitalized due to their loved ones’ negligence.
I don’t like to draw parallels with war, but we are in a fight to curb the transmission of COVID-19; it is a battle to save lives. The disinformation campaign, the manipulation and distortion of facts, the fear-mongering, the spreading of rumors coupled with outright indifference and a cavalier attitude is serving no one. More and more people know someone who is infected or was found to be in contact with someone who was. And some of us know people who died because of it. The circle is getting tighter and tighter.
The women and men on the frontlines of this pandemic will do their job if they know they have a strong, resilient, informed and committed nation behind them. They can endure sleeplessness, hunger, cold, fear, anger if they know that every single one of us is doing something in the service of the safety and security of both our republics.
In lieu of last week’s “It Has To Be Said” editorial