COVID-19: Russian Duma OKs State-Of-Emergency Bill; Armenia Extends Lockdown

Russia

Russian lawmakers have given their initial approval for legislation that allows Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to declare a state of emergency as the country recorded a 27 percent jump in confirmed coronavirus cases, its biggest single-day increase so far.

The bill, approved by parliament’s lower chamber, the State Duma, on March 31, allows the government to declare an emergency situation across the country and to establish mandatory rules of conduct during a state of emergency.

It also approved a penalty of up to five years in prison for those who “knowingly” disseminate false information during “natural and man-made emergencies” and up to seven years in prison for breaking hygienic and sanitation regulations such as quarantine.

The legislation comes as health officials released figures showing the number of coronavirus cases had jumped by 500 from the previous day to 2,337. It was the seventh consecutive day that the number has increased.

Russia’s federal coronavirus task force said on March 31 that the death toll had risen overnight by eight to stand at 17. Critics and even ordinary Russians have voiced skepticism about the accuracy of official figures and have raised questions about the state’s testing for the virus.

It emerged on March 31 that the chief physician of a Moscow hospital that has been dealing with coronavirus patients has tested positive.

“I have isolated myself in my office, where I have everything for online work, management, and televised medical consultations,” Denis Protsenko wrote on Facebook.

Protsenko gave President Vladimir Putin a tour of the Kommunarka hospital last week, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no need to worry as the president tested regularly and all the tests came back negative.

Moscow all but confined its 12 million residents to their homes on March 30, and Mishustin asked regional governors during an emergency meeting to mirror that move.


St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, and more than 20 other regions from the westernmost exclave of Kaliningrad to the Arctic region of Murmansk and Tatarstan on the Volga River, have heeded the call and followed Moscow’s example by introducing compulsory self-isolation regimes.

President Vladimir Putin has called Moscow’s lockdown “necessary and justified.” He had previously called for the week between March 28 and April 5 to be a nonworking week — essentially a weeklong break from work to “prevent the threat of the quick spread of the illness.”

The government also closed all of the country’s borders as of March 30, allowing only Russian diplomats, freight, and other necessary vehicles and people to enter.

Meanwhile, authorities in Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan plan to introduce an electronic code system to control the movements of residents during the region’s coronavirus lockdown.

Presidential spokeswoman Lilia Galimova said on March 31 that the system will require residents of Tatarstan to register at a websitewhich will become functional in a couple of days.

Once registered, people will receive SMS messages with electronic codes that they will show police to prove that they left their houses or work for legitimate reasons.

For example, before leaving their homes, residents will have to text the word ‘Exit’ to the website to receive a code giving them permission to be outside for a maximum of one hour.

Each person will be eligible to receive two of such permission codes per day.

Authorities of the Russian capital, Moscow, said earlier that they plan to introduce a similar electronic code system to control residents’ movements during the lockdown, but they have not given any further details.

There were 19 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of March 31 in Tatarstan.

Iran

Britain, France and Germany have used a special trading mechanism for the first time to send medical supplies to Iran in a way that does not violate U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

The German Foreign Ministry said on March 31 that the three countries sent supplies via Instex, the mechanism set up more than a year ago to allow legitimate humanitarian trade with Iran to offset some effects of the U.S. sanctions.

“France, Germany, and the United Kingdom confirm that Instex has successfully concluded its first transaction, facilitating the export of medical goods from Europe to Iran. These goods are now in Iran,” the German government said.

“Now that the first transaction is complete, Instex and its Iranian counterpart STFI will work on more transactions and enhancing the mechanism,” it added.

Iranian authorities say Washington’s policies and sanctions have hampered its ability to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said on March 31 that 3,111 new infections had been confirmed during the previous day, bringing the total to 44,606 cases in Iran.

Jahanpour said the death toll in Iran rose by 141 on March 31 to a total of 2,898.

Iran is among the countries worst hit by the virus. Experts have been skeptical about the accuracy of official figures released by the Iranian government, which keeps tight controls on local and foreign media.

The government banned intercity travel as it looked to slow the outbreak during the Persian New Year holiday that began on March 20. But Iran has not implemented a complete lockdown in cities — a measure taken in many other countries worldwide.

Officials also have forbidden Iranians from gathering on April 1 for “Sizdah Bedar,” an annual nature festival on the last day of Persian New Year celebrations, during which many Iranians spend time picnicking outdoors.

Armenia

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has extended emergency measures until April 10 as the coronavirus continues to spread in the South Caucasus nation.

Pashinian made the announcement during a live session on Facebook on March 31, saying he was “worried” about rising numbers of infections in the country of 3 million people.

The Health Ministry confirmed 50 more coronavirus cases on March 31, raising the total number to 532, the highest number in the South Caucasus region. Three fatalities have been attributed to the respiratory illness.

The initial month-long state of emergency was declared on March 16.

Restrictions on the free movement of people followed on March 24. Most businesses were ordered shut, with only grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks allowed to stay open.

People are allowed to exercise outdoors once a day near their places of residence, while personnel deemed critical are allowed to continue going to work, such as at hospitals.

Pashinian said that some Armenians remain complacent about the pandemic and ignore stay-at-home orders issued by the authorities.

“The situation is very risky and I want to call on all of us to take it very seriously,” the prime minister said, adding: “Dear compatriots, stay at home and protect your and your loved ones’ health.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers passed a government-drafted bill on its second and last reading to allow the authorities to access personal data from people’s mobile phones to track their movements, phone calls, and text messages.

The measures aim at making it easier for the authorities to track who has been exposed to infected individuals and improve isolation methods to stem the spread of the coronavirus, officials said.

Belarus

Belarus’s president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has confirmed that the death of a theater actor in the eastern Belarusian city of Vitsebsk is the country’s first coronavirus-related fatality.

Relatives told RFE/RL on March 31 that 75-year-old Viktar Dashkevich, an actor at the National Drama Theater in Vitsebsk, had tested positive for the virus and was in hospital for several days before passing away.

“[Dashkevich’s] wife — who was living together with her husband — is well, and his daughter is also well. Because their immunity is strong. But the poor man has not survived. He had a severe case of pneumonia, was connected to a lung-ventilation system, and [doctors] were trying to save him,” Lukashenko said at a meeting with Natallya Kachanava, the chairwoman of parliament’s upper chamber, the Republic Council.

As of March 30, the total number of coronavirus cases in Belarus was 152 and Lukashenka said the country was at the peak of the pandemic.

“Looking at the figures of the illness, I feel we are now at the peak. I pray to God that the peak will have passed by [Orthodox] Easter [April 19],” Lukashenka said.

Lukashenka said there was no need so far to postpone a presidential election planned for later in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

On March 30, the Belarusian central bank said it would ask the International Monetary Fund for some $900 million of emergency funding to tackle the economic effects of the outbreak.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for the immediate release of a Belarusian news website editor who was arrested on March 25 on a charge of “receiving a bribe,” which carries a possible 10-year prison sentence.

The arrest of Syarhey Satsuk, director and editor in chief of the online newspaper ej.by, came three days after he published an editorial criticizing Lukashenka’s approach to the coronavirus epidemic and casting doubt on official infection figures.

Romania

The number of coronavirus infections and deaths in Romania has reached a new high as authorities locked down a northeastern city where more than a quarter of all cases were registered.

The government’s crisis group dealing with the outbreak announced 26 more deaths on March 31 — a more than 50 percent day-to-day increase — bringing the total to 72 fatalities.

The total number of confirmed cases increased by 293 since the previous day, a new daily record that put the total infections at 2,245

            Late on March 30, Interior Minister Marcel Vela announced that Suceava, a city of more than 100,000 people, and eight surrounding villages have been placed under lockdown.

With a population of just over 100,000, Suceava had almost 600 cases and one-third of all fatalities. More than half of the country’s 285 infected doctors, nurses, and other medical staff were in Suceava, officials said.

All roads and highways into Suceava have been blocked by police and the army, with access allowed only for trucks carrying supplies.

Health Minister Nelu Tataru said the spread was caused by poor management at the local hospital, where infected medical personnel were allowed to mingle with healthy colleagues, and people not respecting self-isolation rules.

The quarantine will last until mid-April, when a 30-day nationwide state of emergency is set to end.

Movements in the rest of the country have been restricted for almost a week.

In a live address on March 31, President Klaus Iohannis reassured the inhabitants of Suceava and the surrounding villages that authorities will make sure they will receive food and medical supplies.

Iohannis also thanked all medical personnel for their efforts and promised they will be provided with everything they need to fight the outbreak.

Iohannis’s message came after a growing number of medical personnel — doctors, paramedics, nurses, and auxiliary personnel — resigned from their jobs, either in frustration at the lack of medical supplies or because of fatigue or sheer panic.

Bulgaria

Bulgaria will have to raise 4.2 billion levs ($2.36 billion) in additional debt this year to bridge a fiscal gap caused by additional aid to be given to businesses and workers hit by the coronavirus pandemic, Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov said on March 31.

Goranov also slashed the 2020 outlook to a 3 percent contraction of the Bulgarian economy compared to previous estimates of 3.3 percent growth.

Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s center-right government revised its fiscal plans late on March 30 to run a deficit of 2.9 percent of economic output this year and raised the ceiling on new debt it can raise to 10 billion levs ($5.65 billion) due to the pandemic.

“All these measures have one and only goal: to guarantee that the state has enough liquidity and enough possibility to maintain its main functions,” Goranov told reporters.

The changes are pending parliamentary approval.

Bulgaria is the poorest but also least indebted European Union member state.

Bulgaria has closed schools, restaurants and bars, restricted intercity travel and access to parks, and banned all domestic and foreign holidays and trips until April 13 to contain the spread of the outbreak that has infected 379 people and killed eight so far.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan

Kazakhstan has officially registered its second coronavirus-related death after a 50-year-old man died while in hospital.

Saule Qisyqova, the head of the Health Department in the capital, Nur-Sultan, told reporters that a 50-year-old man, who had been diagnosed with coronavirus and hospitalized 10 days earlier, died on March 31.

That follows the March 26 death of a 65-year-old woman in the central Aqmola region that surrounds Nur-Sultan.

According to Kazakhstan’s health officials, as of March 31 the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country is 325

In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, visits to relatives and friends and gatherings of more than three people in one place, excluding family members, have been banned in Bishkek, which was already under a state of emergency due to the pandemic.

In addition, drivers of private vehicles must prove that they are heading to work or returning home from work with papers issued by their employees as all “unnecessary” use of vehicles in the capital has been banned.

The two southern cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad and several adjacent districts have also been under a state of emergency since last week.

The deputy chief of the coronavirus crisis center in Bishkek, Kasymbek Mambetov, said on March 31 that 13 more coronavirus cases were registered in the country, bringing the total number of cases to 107.

In another Central Asian nation, Uzbekistan, the number of officially confirmed coronavirus cases reached 158, including two deaths, as of March 31.

In two other Central Asian countries, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, no coronavirus cases have been reported so far. Both are tightly controlled.

Tajikistan

Hundreds of Tajik migrant workers stranded at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport because of emergency public health travel restrictions have been forced to leave the airport premises.

Galia Ibragimova, a Moscow-based journalist who has been following the migrants’ ordeal for days, said in a Facebook post on March 31 that about 300 migrant workers had been forced out of the airport overnight.

The migrants were stranded at the airport for about two weeks after all flights to and from Tajikistan were canceled due to coronavirus restrictions imposed in Tajikistan and in Russia.

Ibragimova quoted one migrant named Farukh who said Russian law enforcement officials asked all migrants stuck at the airport to gather at one location.

After they did so, Farukh said, all of them were “kicked out” of the premises without any place to go. Farukh posted a video showing the situation on YouTube.

Kosovo

Kosovo’s Constitutional Court has ruled that curfews ordered by Prime Minister Albin Kurti to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the country violated the constitution.

The court said on March 31 that imposing blanket nightly curfews affecting all citizens of Kosovo violates free movement guaranteed by the constitution, and ordered the government to repeal the measures within two weeks.

The court acted on a motion filed by President Hashim Thaci as part of political wrangling that drove Kosovo into a political crisis as it struggles to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

The Balkan country has confirmed 112 coronavirus cases and one virus-related death.

Acting Deputy Prime Minister Haki Abazi told RFE/RL that the Constitutional Court has not fully explained why the government’s March 23 decision is unconstitutional.

Abazi said the government will respect the ruling, but in the meantime will do its best to ensure that all measures will be taken to “protect people’s lives.”

Last week, Thaci told citizens not to respect coronavirus-related curfews announced by Kurti’s government, saying such measures can only be declared under a state of emergency. Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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