Armenia vs Coronavirus

"If the situation continues to deteriorate, tougher measures will be taken"

Interview with MP Mikayel Zolyan about the state's fight againts coronavirus.

Interview: Tigran Zakaryan

 

Yesterday the state of emergency was announced which will stay for a period of one month. As a member of the parliament what is your comment on the role the parliament can play during this period?

The state of emergency does not change much in our daily routine. We are supposed to continue discussing and adopting new laws unless something changes during that time fundamentally. Besides, I think our main role is to ensure communication between the executive authorities and the populace on one hand to inform and explain them the philosophy of the decisions taken and on the other hand to convey any possible feedback, concerns, data, which might be relevant for decision makers.

There are critics claiming the government’s reaction was too slow in instating the state of emergency while others argue that the government should impose stricter measures and complete lockdown on residents of certain areas or across the whole nation. What is your opinion on this?

There are two sides of this coin: one being the public health, the other is a group of considerations of non-health character. By this I mean economic effects of the decision and restrictions on individual liberties. Moreover, economic fallout is not just about the numbers; there are people the economic indicators, people who may not be able to pay their bills, people who may lose their jobs, people who may not afford their rent, and so on. In both cases we are guided by the concern of the well-being of the people and any decision taken should balance both of those considerations. In fact almost all governments across the world are guided by them and if we follow the timing of the emergency state enforced in those countries, we have roughly the same pattern almost everywhere. The Armenian situation is not that extraordinary against the backdrop of the global picture. In addition, if there is no general understanding and support to the measures taken and civic involvement we cannot succeed in our mission. So the ultimate success of the measures taken depends on the goodwill of the people. By the same token, the authorities have to issue clear instructions, which, I believe, has been the case so far.

Yesterday a question was raised during the parliament session on locking down enterprises with the exception of those which have vital and strategic importance for maintaining the normal functioning of the everyday life. Meanwhile yesterday the Prime Minister said that restaurants, cafes and such institution could continue functioning providing safety measures, but its implementation is hard to imagine. Do you believe it is safe to have them open?

First of all, the decree on the emergency state gives a wide scope powers for the designated body, the Headquarters and the Commandant to lock down such institutions and they actually already did so. But we do not lock down all the enterprises simply because we have to take care of other considerations, as mentioned earlier, including the welfare of their people of who work there, as well as the effect on the overall economic situation. This is an example of what I said earlier: we need to balance both the risks related to health and the risks related to the socio-economic effects of the situation. But, of course, if the situation continues to deteriorate, tougher measures will be taken.

Today Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that after instating the emergency state in Armenia the sales volumes of the bigger supermarkets in Armenia have increased while smaller entities registered a drop in sales. My concern is how small business and employees of those enterprises will survive the crisis. What about equality and fair sharing sharing of losses and damage that the actual crisis might cause?

Of course, the government, specific agencies and the parliament – at least the ruling My Step faction – will address the issue as much as it is possible. They need to be addressed along with healthcare issues, but it is yet too soon to announce any specific policy in this regard. We need yet to understand and assess losses in different sectors. In any case the burden should be shared fairly without letting smaller businesses to be ruined, or having a situation when lockdown businesses suffer financially while those which did not stop it could thrive. Certainly calculating those risks takes time. The approach should be based on individual cases rather than giving a sweeping general reaction.

What about postponement of payment for utility services?

The same pattern here; we need to follow the development of the situation and take adequate measures. It will not work announcing now that a general postponement will be provided ahead of the crisis. Such a practice does not exist anywhere.

Are Armenian parliamentarians in touch with their counterparts abroad and is there any exchange of information in this regard?

Of course we are following what is unfolding globally and in this topic is of paramount importance in our international contacts. Recently I made a part of an official Armenian delegation visiting Serbia just before the pandemic was announced. We touched on the issue with our Serbian colleagues as well, there is an exchange of experience. After all the challenges are common and solutions are similar as well. I’m afraid no country will be safe from this and I think so far our government has been acting in a most clear and transparent manner.

The decree on emergency state stipulates that all information disseminated on the pandemic situation in Armenia should be brought in line with the official statements. Does this not infringe the constitutional freedoms of the people and how much can we trust the government figures?

First of all it does not apply to critical opinion on the government or the ruling party; it only concerns the information on the epidemic. Certainly there is need to combat spreading apparently false information which also might be meant to spread panic among the populace. The second question is a part and parcel of the question whether there is general trust towards this government and I believe this government enjoys such a trust unlike many previous ones. There are countries with governments trying to conceal the real extent of the problem from the public. I am glad that Armenia is not among them..  We see that the Prime Minister is live streaming his messages several times a day and other officials are reporting on the situation. When all of this is over – the sooner the better – the people will make their judgment. Our situation is pretty much like a war and the society will have to consolidate. Armenian society did that back in 2016 [during the 4 days war in April] even if the government was not a trustworthy one. The public reaction followed much later when the crisis was over. Today I believe that the citizens have infinitely more trust toward the government, since this is one that was chosen by a majority in a free and fair election, so if such consolidation was possible in 2016, then by all means it is possible today. And of course, after the crisis is over, the people will be able to pass their judgment on how well the government handled the situation.

Maybe the reaction will come during the constitution referendum, which is postponed till after the end of the state of emergency? Do you think the incumbent ruling faction will suffer political losses after the pandemic is over?  

First, I disagree with opinions that the referendum is a vote of confidence for the incumbent authorities. I would rather argue that the referendum is about dismantling of the remnants of the former regime and I am sure the society unequivocally supports it. As to whether the incumbent  government will suffer political losses, I don’t think we have time to think about that now. Today we are doing our best to contain the crisis, and the citizens will be able to assess our work, when the crisis is over. One thing I can say though, is that the confidence of the people is everything we have, unlike some others who own large financial assets both in Armenia and abroad.