By Ofeliya Afandiyeva
President Ilham Aliyev has said that he has prioritized the population's health and welfare over the economy while handling the COVID-19 crisis.
Aliyev made the remarks during a videoconference with President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Suma Chakrabarti on April 28.
“The decision to impose restrictive measures has not been easy. We understood that there would be concerns for the people, a big blow to our economic development, although this year's performance was very promising. But we had two options. The first option was to protect people's lives and health, and the second option was to save the economy. Therefore, from the first day, our choice was to protect people's lives. This is the purpose of all the work we have done, and we have fully mobilized our efforts in this direction,” Aliyev said.
The president also said that 120,000 tests have been conducted in the country to reveal COVID-19 and that Azerbaijan is “in the lead in terms of the number of tests per capita.” He reminded that 2,000 citizens are being held in quarantine.
Furthermore, Aliyev spoke about the measures to fight COVID-19.
“We started to take measures based on the real situation from the first day. It was very important for us to properly assess the situation and create an effective team to deal with this crisis. The virus came to Azerbaijan from the neighborhood, and to prevent this, we have taken appropriate steps and closed our borders by agreement and joint decision with neighboring countries. I think we made this decision on time and earlier than similar decisions in other countries, and thus we gained time. We see that the most important issue in the fight against this virus is time, because no country's health system is ready to treat such a large number of infected people. Therefore, gaining time, preparing our health care system, mobilizing our specialists and doctors, and establishing good governance were our main goals.”
The head of the state also emphasized continuous and effective cooperation between Azerbaijan and World Health Organization (WHO), which was initiated by Azerbaijani government. As a result, WHO endorsed Azerbaijan’s large-scaled preventive measures and sent its specialists to support the country’s activity to combat against virus. Later, WHO issued a statement citing Azerbaijan as an example in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have created additional laboratories and currently have 18 laboratories are operating. Patients infected with the coronavirus are treated in 22 public hospitals, including the newly commissioned 575-bed modern hospital. At present, we have about 2,000 citizens in quarantine, and this number is declining. These people are foreigners and those who have been in contact with them. They are accommodated in 4-5 star hotels and are treated in environment, which meets high standards,” Aliyev said.
In addition, he underlined the effective result of the tightened measures, which ended up positive trend in the number of the infected and recovered persons.
Aliyev mentioned that for weeks the number recovered exceeds the number of infected people and at the same time, relatively low mortality rate shows that work is being done in a positive direction. Therefore, government approved the relevant decision to mitigate restrictive measures from April 27.
Aliyev particularly touched upon adverse consequences of the disease to economy and underlined considerable implemented actions in order to support business and social protection of people.
“As for the impact on our economy, of course, the impact will be negative. We had positive prospects at the beginning of the year. If we take into account the first quarter of the year, the growth is 1 percent, the growth in the non-oil sector is 3 percent, and the growth in the non-energy sector is 23 percent. A serious support package has been provided to the relevant sectors of the private sector that have been adversely affected by the coronavirus. Most of the salaries of 600,000 citizens and micro-entrepreneurs working in the service and other sectors were paid by the state. At the same time, 600,000 low-income, unemployed and informally employed citizens were paid in accordance with the minimum criteria.”
“This is a big expense for us. Taking into account tax benefits, today this figure is more than $2 billion. This is a huge burden on our budget, as a sharp drop in oil prices will have a negative impact on our foreign exchange reserves. But for us, this is a time when we need to increase our spending and help our poor citizens and entrepreneurs. At the same time, this year we have doubled the number of paid public jobs. The minimum wage is paid here, and these are usually public sector jobs. This year, the number of such jobs will be 90 thousand. We have also increased the number of citizens receiving social assistance. Each such family is paid $130.5 a month, and their number has reached 80,000. At the same time, self-employment opportunities have been created for 12,000 people - an increase of 70 percent,” the head of the state underlined.
In the meantime, during the conversation with the EBRD’s president, Aliyev mentioned some directions of collaboration between Azerbaijan and the bank.
In general, the head of the state noted Green Cities Programme, which will be implemented as pilot project in Ganja in compliance with the agreement of EBRD, the signed contracts between Azerbaijan, ACWA Power Company (Saudi Arabia) and Masdar Company (UAE) in the field of renewable energy and as a last point he mentioned the urgent need for improvement of irrigation system in Azerbaijan.
Aliyev expressed his hope that EBRD will support these projects both financially and will contribute to professionalism of the staff.
Then, the sides exchanged views on the prospects of cooperation between Azerbaijan and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Azerbaijani Minister of Economy Mikayil Jabbarov and the Managing Director, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus (EEC) of EBRD Matteo Patrone spoke at the discussions.
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