YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Armenia’s government has decided to close all schools, universities and kindergartens until at least March 23 as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases reached eight in the country on Friday.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held consultations with his cabinet and other agencies today after interrupting his vacation and suspending campaign rallies ahead of next month’s constitutional referendum to discuss further measures to contain the spread of the highly contagious and potentially deadly disease in Armenia.

In a live broadcast on Facebook after the meeting Pashinyan announced the suspension of classes in all schools, calling on all citizens to show individual responsibility in following all basic protective measures against the new coronavirus known as COVID-19 that has already affected nearly 140,000 people around the world (with more than 5,000 deaths) and has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

“We will get back to the issue on March 18 or 19 and will extend the suspension if necessary,” he said. “We also urge citizens to avoid as much as possible organizing and participating in mass events, especially those citizens who have [coronavirus-like] symptoms.”

In another related development Armenia’s soccer federation announced on Friday that all tournaments held under its umbrella will be suspended until March 23.

Armenia identified its first coronavirus patient on March 1. The infected person was an Armenian citizen evacuated from Iran. He was immediately hospitalized and 31 other people who might have had close contacts with him were placed under a two-week quarantine then.

On March 11, three people who had arrived from Italy, including two Armenian citizens and one Italian working in Armenia, also tested positive for COVID-19. Fifty-seven people were placed under quarantines. The following day two members of the extended family of one of the Armenian patients, a woman from Etchmiadzin, also tested positive and were isolated. Another two patients were identified on Friday from among the people quarantined after having contacts with the woman.

It turned out that after returning from Italy the woman participated in an engagement party for her son in the town situated about 20 kilometers to the west of capital Yerevan. The party was attended by more than three dozen people, according to reports.

Pashinyan said that the woman, who had been properly registered upon returning from Italy and was under the monitoring of health officials, later concealed from authorities the fact that she developed coronavirus symptoms, including fever.

“She hid it not only form the state, but also from her family, as she deemed it important for her – as this is part of our tradition – to attend a family member’s engagement party… Before the party itself the woman was in contact with her hairdresser, a jeweler… And now we have a situation when her cousin and husband have already tested positive for coronavirus and other people she had contacts with are under quarantine,” said Pashinian, adding that by saying this he was far from intending to blame the citizen for what happened under the circumstances.

He said his government could not have possibly prevented a case like that, calling for individual responsibility of citizens. “State administrative bodies can take numerous measures, but if a person wants to bypass these measures, he or she will find the way to do that. But it is important that each of us show a responsible approach in this situation,” Pashinyan said. “The conclusion that we arrived at following our discussions is that our main message to our citizens should be that they realize their individual responsibility in this period of epidemic.”

The prime minister reiterated that basic steps like temporarily refusing to shake hands and greet each other by kissing may prove effective in containing the spread of the deadly virus.

Earlier this week the Armenian government announced that a charter flight from Rome to Yerevan will be organized on March 15 to evacuate Armenian citizens from coronavirus-hit Italy.

Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan said on Thursday that a 14-day quarantine regime will be instituted for all citizens to be brought to Armenia from Italy.

Earlier this month Armenia also re-introduced a visa regime and tightened controls at the border with neighboring Iran, another coronavirus hotspot in the world.

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