Eastern Partnership countries responded to COVID-19 pandemic very differently. For some, the virus has become an impetus to mobilize resources and consolidate society. For others, is served at as excuse for the next round of repressions against the opposition. Some have set restrictions earlier, and some still ignore the threat. But for all six states, for sure, this is a serious blow to the economy, which requires external assistance to recover from. What response strategies were applied in the region and whose methods will be more effective?
Armenia: Rapid Response
Richard Giragosian, Regional Studies Center (Yerevan, Armenia)
For a small landlocked country, isolation is deadly. But in the face of the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, the Armenian government was forced to impose a partial closure on its borders with Iran and Georgia, the only two of its four external borders that were open for trade and travel. And then with the closure of the country’s one international airport, Armenia is under self-imposed isolation to avert the threat of contagion.
Armenia’s response to the coronavirus crisis, as coordinated through the Foreign Ministry, began with the suspension of the visa-free regime for Chinese nationals on January 31, followed by preliminary planning for domestic response, including preparations for an extensive mobilization of domestic public health resources involving hospitals and clinics, and culminating in a decision from February 24 to impose strict limits on the Armenian border with Iran. Reflecting a surge in cases in Iran in January-February, this move involved a partial closure of the land border, allowing only trucks and other cargo through under close supervision and medical monitoring, and a suspension of an ordinarily active series of passenger flights. By February 29, the Armenian Foreign Ministry had evacuated some 65 Armenian citizens from Iran, with another 200 Armenians being ready for return to the country from China.
On March 16 a bill was adopted declaring a 30-day state of emergency that closed all schools and universities. The bill also mentions the prohibition of disseminating information about the virus that has not been confirmed by the government on social media and news outlets. The government followed with a “lockdown” of all public gatherings or movement on March 24. Accordingly, the national lockdown imposed by the Armenian government introduced new restrictions, as people would only be allowed to leave their homes to buy food, receive medical care or exercise, although food stores, pharmacies and banks remain open and no restrictions were imposed on agricultural work. Interprovincial passenger transportations were banned. Enforced by the police and subject to fines for violators, the measure was widely seen as successful and has reportedly slowed the contagion of the virus. Fines of up to 500,000 drams (about $1,000) can be imposed on those who break the requirements of isolation or self-isolation and if that violations results in mass infection in can be punished by up to five years in prison.
In a related move, the Armenian parliament voted on March 31 to allow the authorities to access personal data from people’s mobile phones for the purpose of tracking movements, phone calls and text messages of Armenians infected with the virus.
Authorities can access personal data from people’s mobile phones for the purpose of tracking movements, phone calls and text messages of Armenians infected with the virus
Moving to confront the looming downturn in the economy from the public health crisis, the Armenian government announced on March 30 another $20.2 million to pay service sector workers and individual entrepreneurs in one-time cash payments to cushion the economic impact of the emergency. This financial package is to be used to assist private sector employees and individual entrepreneurs in the hotel and catering sector, retail food outlets, tourism, hairdressing and beauty salon services and retailers, with the exception of medicine, food, alcohol and tobacco, however.
The move follows an earlier decision on March 18 to extend $300 million aimed at providing a stimulus package that will include over $50 million to co-finance and subsidize the interest rates of loans for companies that borrow money from Armenian banks in the national currency to pay salaries, taxes, bills and purchase raw materials.
Azerbaijan: Fight against Virus and Opposition
Zohrab Ismayil, Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy (Baku, Azerbaijan)
Azerbaijan, as a neighbour of Iran, where the coronavirus is widespread, is at a high risk. Many observers note that Azerbaijan was late to close its borders with Iran only on February 29 2020, when there were already first hundreds of patients in the country.
At the end of February, an Operational Headquarters under the Cabinet of Ministers was established to prevent a pandemic and coordinate state institutions. Since March, Azerbaijan introduced quarantine on the southern borders and for the first time began to check the temperature of citizens returning from Iran. Since mid-March, all citizens who returned from abroad have been sent to quarantine for two weeks. The large shopping and entertainment centres closed on March 22, while the metro in Baku stopped working only on March 30.
So far, more than 45 thousand tests for coronavirus were taken and 641 of them turned out positive, 44 people recovered, and 7 died.
Recently, Azerbaijan tightened quarantine restrictions: one can go out onto the street only after sending an SMS to a special number and only to buy food and medicine (for 2 hours) and to visit medical institutions or the funerals of their loved ones (for 6 hours). The city and intercity transport was stopped, the purpose of travel by private car is checked by the traffic police. Fines for violation of quarantine are set at a level from 100 to 5000 manat ($60- $3000). But many lawyers consider this contrary to the Constitution because a state of emergency has not yet been declared and there are no legal grounds for such restrictions. Instead, a special quarantine regime is in effect until April 20.
Human rights activists believe that the government uses restrictive measures for the crack down on opposition
Human rights activists believe that the government uses restrictive measures for the crack down on opposition. The President Ilham Aliyev, while addressing the nation for the celebration of Navruz, unequivocally stated that “isolating the fifth column would be a historic decision.”
On March 19, 2020, the President Ilham Aliyev allocated 1 billion manat ($588 million) from the state budget to combat the pandemic and its consequences. The president also created the Support Fund Against Coronavirus and announced that he would transfer his annual salary to this fund. It was a campaign that forced civil servants of large banks and companies to “donate” to the fund. Although many people in the country responded to the president’s promise to live for a year without salary, with just a smile.
Later on, the government increased the allocated funds to 2.5 billion manat ($1.5 billion). The government is set to partially pay the salaries to employees of the companies that suffered from the pandemic, provides tax holidays for entrepreneurs, and two-time payments of 190 manat ($100) for registered unemployed, the number of who will reportedly reach 200 thousand people.
Non-scientific treatment methods from Belarusian president
Vadim Mojeiko, Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS), (Minsk, Belarus)
Every day sees not only the increase of people infected with coronavirus, but also higher growth rates: if earlier the number of registered cases grew daily by 10-20%, starting from April 7-8 it made up already 40%. According to the Ministry of Health, 49 thousand tests have been made. It was only on April 8 that the Ministry of Health started to regularly update coronavirus statistics on its Telegram channel.
The country’s authorities admit that the number of infected people is growing: as Vladimir Karanik, the head of the country’s Healthcare Ministry, stated in the parliament, the peak of the COVID-19 epidemic is predicted to be in late April – early May.
President Alexander Lukashenko demonstrated a unique attitude to the issue mocking it and saying that “the world has gone mad because of coronavirus psychosis and infodemic”. He also accused “the world’s most powerful” of an attempt to “divide the world yet again” in such a way, and offered non-scientific treatment methods: inhaling smoke and char, eating butter, driving a tractor, going to sauna, playing ice hockey, “disinfecting from within” using vodka etc.
State TV channels are active supporters of the strategy accepted by the Belarusian authorities and downplay COVID-19 epidemic threat. Belarus is the only European country that not only ignored putting on hold its football championship but is still holding matches with audience being present. The annual parade is planned for May 9, and its rehearsals are already taking place.
President Alexander Lukashenko offered to treat COVID-19 with inhaling smoke and char, eating butter, driving a tractor, going to sauna, playing ice hockey, “disinfecting from within” using vodka
However, there has been a recent change and the authorities did introduce some measures: some mass gatherings are banned, social distancing in cafes and hotels (even though there are not very many of them) was introduced, higher educational institutions provide distance learning, while parents can keep their children at home and don’t take them to schools and kindergartens. On April 9 the self-isolation regime was expanded, and now it is to be respected not only by those arriving from abroad, but also by the contacts of the first and second levels. Full quarantine has not been introduced as of April 9, and masks are not obligatory to wear yet.
Already on March 16, Russia declared that it closed its border with Belarus, however, Belarus itself has not closed its other borders.
Against this backdrop active civil and social solidarity is especially clear. #ByCovid19 campaign was launched, and its activists help medical institutions to purchase or manufacture masks, medical equipment and protective gear. Business provides washing machines and washing powder to medical institutions, while cafes prepare and deliver food to doctors.
Georgia and its curfew
Lasha Tughushi, Liberal Academy Tbilisi Foundation (Tbilisi, Georgia)
According to periodic TV surveys, including on opposition TV channels, the citizens of Georgia give positive feedback regarding the government measures to tackle coronavirus crisis. As of April 1, the number of infected people in Georgia is the lowest in the region.
According to official statistics, the first infected person appeared in Georgia on February 25. Special measures were approved by the parliament and came into force on March 21. The opposition representatives that are now boycotting the government were also present at the parliament session. As for political rights, only a ban of mass gatherings was introduced. There are no limitations when it comes to mass media.
Healthcare system operates rather well. It is evident that the authorities pay attention to medics and their recommendations. Despite the fact that healthcare remains a largely private sector, it is open for cooperation.
March 31 saw the introduction of a curfew. There are restrictions on movement from 9 pm to 6 am. Public transport including metro and buses does not operate. It is forbidden to gather for more than three people in a group. All enterprises that provide a wide range of services are closed, economic activity is allowed only in several sectors, while grocery stores, pharmacies, and financial institutions remain open.
The government also introduced social and economic assistance. According to the decision made by the government, the economy of the country will be aided by GEL 2 billion (over $600 ml) that will mostly be used in order to support employment, as well as companies and their ongoing productions.
There are restrictions on movement from 9 pm to 6 am
To help fight coronavirus crisis itself the relevant budget will comprise of GEL 351 ml (around $100 ml) According to prime minister Giorgi Gakharia, it is extremely important that after overcoming the crisis peak Georgian economy is able to develop and restore its starting positions at the beginning of the year. Moreover, the budget also provides for social support. In particular, 1 million 200 thousand households will be able to benefit from reduced energy tariffs, while 671 thousand household – from reduced natural gas tariffs.
Georgia closed its borders while leaving a possibility of transitting goods for neighboring countries. Armenia, for instance, does not have other reliable transit route. In relation to this, Georgia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is busy assisting the return of thousands of its citizens to Georgia. There are not enough scheduled flights, with the relevant infrastructure also not being ready to provide a quarantine for those citizens, the number of who makes up over five thousand people now.
Saakashvili, Georgia’s ex-president, the leader of the main opposition force, has been offering Georgian government his support in assisting the return of Georgian citizens back to their homeland, namely tickets and some financial support. The government did not accept this help naming this a populist move. Right now, Saakashvili himself is abroad, as he is sentenced in Georgia, and as soon as he arrives in the country he will be imprisoned.
Moldova: elections in the times of pandemic
Natalia Stercul, Foreign Policy Association of Moldova (Chisinau)
After declaring “red code” coronavirus alert special measures and restrictions were introduced, and the State of Emergency was declared to prevent the pandemic from spreading. However, despite significant efforts made by the authorities, control and continuous monitoring of patients, it was not possible to avoid failures and costly mistakes.
Starting March 11, restrictions related to the risk of coronavirus spreading were launched in Moldova: educational institutions, entertainment and sport facilities, shopping points except pharmacies, grocery stores and petrol stations were closed down, while mass gatherings were forbidden. Banks and state institutions operate under a special mode. Fines are introduced for violating the quarantine regime.
However, “red code” alert was not a good enough reason for Moldovan to postpone additional parliamentary elections in one-mandate constituency #38 in Hyncheshty. The threat of opposition winning overweighed common sense. The president signed a special decree by the Extraordinary National Commission of Public Health that states that elections are not a part of special measures and procedure remains unchanged. Over 23% of voters took part in elections on March, 15 and as a result, this area became the second epicenter of coronavirus spread after the capital.
On March 17 Moldovan authorities declared the state of emergency for 60 days, that is until May 15. Air travel is put on hold except for special flights, railway service is restricted, public transportation both in and between towns operates under a special emergency mode. Starting from March 25 new special measures and restrictions were introduced. Visiting public spaces, parks, recreational spaces and places of mass gathering is banned. People over 63 are banned from leaving their homes unless there is an extreme emergency. Pensions and social payments are delivered home. Military will be involved in supervising how these rules are respected on a daily basis.
Moldovan citizens keep coming back from abroad. Initially they were not tested for coronavirus as there were simply not enough tests available in the country. There is still a clear deficit of tests as well as the most essential protective means such as gloves, masks, disinfectants etc. Moreover, lack of responsibility among those who returned to the country and violated the quarantine thus threatening the lives of others, may cause the worsening of the situation in the near future as the number of sick people will significantly increase.
Over 23% of voters took part in elections on March 15 and as a result, this area became the second epicenter of coronavirus spread after the capital
Churches also spawn additional risks. Despite the request of the prime minister Iona Kiku, on Sunday, March 29, services were held in 654 churches in Moldova.
The aftermath of coronavirus crisis may be a heavy blow to Moldovan economy that had been stagnating for a long time even before the epidemic outbreak. The only way it could carry on was largely thanks to regular aid from European partners and finances coming from Moldovans working abroad. The government provides MDL 36,28 ml (around $2 mln) from its reserve fund to purchase medical equipment needed to fight coronavirus. This money is meant for providing 200 000 protective shields and 500 000 respirators. Moreover, the authorities developed special initiatives aimed at supporting social and economic stability in the country in crisis. Those enterprises whose work was put on hold according to the decision made by the Extraordinary National Commission of Public Health, will be supported by the government and state budget in order to keep jobs. The measures include paying wages by returning 100% of physical entity taxes, social payments for medical insurance funds, i.e. 44-45% of regular wages. Unemployed people who are not on the dole will get a sum equivalent to the amount of minimal wages in the country, that is MDL 2775 ($150). Public servants who are on the first line of fighting coronavirus, and those infected with COVID-19 (doctors, nurses, police officers etc) will get a one-time governmental financial support of MDL 16000 (about $900) that is equivalent to double average wages across the country. Other options of special measures to support the population of the country and its economic agents are being considered as well.
Ukraine: MPs are among the first infected
Sergiy Gerasymchuk, Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”
Quarantine in Ukraine started on March 12. At first, it was imposed until April 3, but the Cabinet of Ministers extended it until April 24. The government did not “invent a bicycle”, but used the experience of other countries , in particular China, Germany, Italy.
Passenger traffic between cities and regions was completely cancelled, including railway, bus and air traffic. In many cities, Kyiv in particular, all public transport, including the metro, was completely stopped. According to the latest changes, citizens are banned to be in public places without a face mask, they can only stay in parks while walking pets, and are banned from walking in a group of more than two people. All public places are closed, except for grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks.
Such steps, as conceived by the Cabinet of Ministers, should drastically reduce the population mobility and gain time to prepare the medical industry for a possible disease outbreak. At the same time, all mobile operators in Ukraine, in close cooperation with the Ministry of Health, sent SMS with brief instructions on what COVID-19 is and what people should do if they suspect a viral infection. Besides, every day, the deputy minister of health informs the population through the media about the current situation with COVID-19, the capital’s mayor and most of the region heads do the same.
An information campaign appealing to the population to stay at home and adhere to quarantine measures continues on the air of many radio stations and on television. President V. Zelensky, with enviable regularity, records video messages to the nation, talking about the work done and the measures taken in the fight against the disease.
The country borders are completely closed for the passenger traffic, both by air and land. the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received a joke nickname the “Ministry of Evacuation” because over the past 3-4 weeks diplomats helped tens of thousands of Ukrainians to return home. It looks like it is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that bears the palm in communications with society.
With several MPs being among first diagnosed with COVID-19 in the country, parliament adopted several important laws aimed at overcoming the epidemic aftermaths
Several MPs were the first people in the country to be diagnosed with COVID-19. Despite this, the country’s parliament adopted several important laws aimed at ove
ng the epidemic aftermaths. While adopting these laws, parliamentarians simplified tender procedures for the procurement and customs clearance of medications and equipment necessary to combat coronavirus infection. Parliament also allowed the use of drugs unregistered in Ukraine and recommended for treatment by the official bodies of the EU member states, the USA, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, Canada, China, Israel, and the UK. Besides the “anti-coronavirus
” laws, the MPs adopted some other equally important initiatives that should primarily support small and medium-sized businesses. Basically, these laws are aimed at exemption from certain types of taxes and penalties for the period of quarantine, as well as a moratorium on documentary and actual inspections of certain categories of business entities.
But against this backdrop of fighting COVID-19, it was not without a big fly in the ointment. The Parliament failed the bill on sequestration of the state budget, and as a result on the creation of a special fund to combat coronavirus disease. All the Prime Minister D. Schmygal’s assurances that the Parliament will vote for the so-called “emergency budget” soon look like putting on a brave face in a bad game.
Ukrainian business does not stand aside and contributes to fighting against the disease. Many businessmen and companies, both large and small ones, are engaged as they are able in procure
ment (of face masks, respirators, protective suits, lung ventilators, test systems, etc.) for regional and central medical institutions and pharmacies.
The grass-roots sentiments in Ukraine about the quarantine measures vary. The conscious part of the population stays at home and does not go outside without urgent need. The other part takes quarantine as an unplanned vacation and goes on with a familiar lifestyle, arranges picnics in parks and green areas. The attempts to proceed with tourist trips overseas after the quarantine was announced were glaring and led the state to the need for intervention to ensure the return of such tourist
s. Such are the recent cases of citizens returned from faraway Vietnam, or evacuated from Bali through Qatar, who went on vacation after the President’s appeal for an urgent return to the homeland, and some of the returned people just hacked staying in observation places after their return. In the long term, such carelessness can lead to grave consequences, which we can see from the example of other countries.