COVID-19: WHO Urges Belarus To Implement Distancing Measures; Georgia To Extend State Of Emergency

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The global death toll from the coronavirus is more than 171,000 with some 2.5 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here’s a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL’s broadcast regions.

Belarus

The World Health Organization (WHO) is urging the Belarusian government to introduce measures to ensure physical distancing in order to slow down the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

The recommendations were made on April 21 by a team of WHO experts who visited Belarus earlier this month to assess the country’s response to the pandemic.

The number of reported coronavirus cases in Belarus is “growing rapidly,” the statement said, with 6,723 cases and 55 deaths reported by the authorities as of April 21.

Despite the growing outbreak, authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has derided global concerns over COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as “mass psychosis” and said that there was no need for strict measures to slow the spread of the virus.

In stark contrast to other European countries that have adopted strict lockdown measures to contain the epidemic, Belarus’s borders remained open, factories, shops, and restaurants conduct business as usual in the country, and spectators are permitted to attend sports events, including matches in the national soccer league.

Churches remained open for Orthodox Easter on April 19, and schools were allowed to reopen this week after an extended spring break.

However, the Health Ministry has encouraged citizens to reduce their social contacts.

In their statement, the WHO experts said Minsk needed to postpone “large gatherings,” including sporting, religious, and cultural events, and place in quarantine “contacts of confirmed patients and people potentially exposed to the virus,” they said in a statement.

They said the authorities should also introduce options “for teleworking, and distance learning for schools, universities and other educational institutions,” suspend “nonessential business,” and reduce “nonessential movements, especially for high-risk groups.”

Tajikistan

As the coronavirus pandemic has already infected more than 2.5 million people across the world and killed over 171,000, civil rights activists in Tajikistan are raising concerns about a possible unreported outbreak of the virus in the country.

Tajikistan has not officially declared any cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, but experts are skeptical of the claim, given the lack of transparency within the government and a lack of independent media.

Underscoring the level of distrust toward Tajikistan’s authorities, 18 local civil-rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and individual activists on April 20 asked the Health Ministry to answer a series of questions to help clarify the epidemiological situation in the country.

In an open letter, the NGOs asked the ministry to publish statistics on cases of pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other respiratory illnesses for the first quarter of 2019 and 2020 in order to make a comparative analysis.

In recent weeks, a number of deaths in Tajikistan that were officially attributed to pneumonia, tuberculosis, and influenza have sparked concerns about a possible coronavirus outbreak in the Central Asian country.

The 18 NGOs also raised concerns about the reliability of Chinese and Russian testing kits used in Tajikistan for coronavirus.

“Do the [testing kits] have an international certificate of quality and are they certified in Tajikistan? Were they approved by [the World Health Organization]?” their letter asks.

Elsewhere in Central Asia, authoritarian Turkmenistan also has not officially declared any coronavirus cases.

In neighboring Uzbekistan, officials have reported 1,657 confirmed cases and six deaths.

The official number of people infected in Kazakhstan stands at 1,967, with 19 deaths.

In Kyrgyzstan, 590 people have officially been infected, seven of whom died.

Georgia

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has signed a decree to extend until May 22 a state of emergency that had been declared in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The presidential decree, which was signed on April 21, is to come into force after parliament approves it.

Zurabishvili explained her decision by saying that the virus was expected to continue spreading in the South Caucasus country for “the next two-three weeks.”

She also said that Georgia had been able to “control” the extent of the epidemic since a one-month state of emergency was declared on March 21.

Georgian health authorities have reported 408 confirmed coronavirus cases, including four deaths. More than 4,700 people are currently in quarantine.

Parliament speaker Mamuka Mdinaradze has said that the ruling majority in parliament would support the extension of the state of emergency, which includes a night curfew and the closure of nonessential shops, restaurants, and cafes.

A nationwide ban on driving cars and other private vehicles has also been imposed.

Serbia

The Serbian government will loosen strict lockdown measures implemented last month to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Some small businesses and markets including car mechanics, shoemakers, dry cleaners, bookshops, and other services will be allowed to reopen on April 21.

The government said businesses must enforce strict prevention measures such as wearing a face covering, gloves, and disinfecting. Shopping malls, cafes, restaurants, schools, and kindergartens will remain closed.

A night curfew will be shortened by one hour and an around-the-clock lockdown for people aged 65 and above will also be eased, allowing them to leave their homes for 30-minute walks on three evenings a week.

“The government also calls on employers in the construction industry to resume work… while adhering to protection measures and rules of social distancing,” the government said in a statement.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced last month some of the strictest measures in Europe as part of a state of emergency to slow the spread of the virus.

Over the weekend, the government imposed an 84-hour curfew to prevent socializing during Orthodox Christian Easter on April 19.

Serbia has reported 6,630 coronavirus infections and 125 fatalities.

Armenia

Authorities have sealed off a small town and an adjacent village in Armenia’s northwestern Shirak province after 18 employees of a local hospital tested positive for the coronavirus.

All roads leading to the town of Maralik were blocked by police checkpoints on April 20.

“We only let through people with special permission,” a policeman manning one of the checkpoints told RFE/RL.

Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian, who is overseeing the enforcement of the coronavirus-related state of emergency in Armenia, announced the decision to lock down Maralik and the adjacent village of Dzorakap on April 18 after 18 coronavirus cases were confirmed among the 61-member staff of a local hospital.

The head of the regional administration’s health-care department, Leyli Aslanian, told RFE/RL on April 20 that two local residents have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, one of whom was the father of an infected nurse working at the Maralik hospital.

Health authorities in Armenia said on April 21 that the number of registered coronavirus cases in the country totaled 1,401, including 24 deaths.

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