Reflecting on Year One of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Armenia Though the Doctor’s Eyes

A frontline worker casts a look at the one year of COVID-19 in Armenia and her team’s relentless work to save lives amidst the pandemic and a war

Gor Petrosyan
Dr. Naira Stepanyan walk along the corridor of the medical centre.
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Biayna Mahari
07 April 2021

Since the onset of the pandemic in Armenia, USAID joined hands with UNICEF to provide necessary support in terms of various types of healthcare and protective equipment, hygiene materials and tests, as well as embark on evidence-based risk communication for caregivers and young people. As we mark the World Health Day, let’s cast a look back and express our gratitude to the frontline workers, as well as be reminded that we must continue to follow the tried and tested measures that keep each and all of us safe. Here’s Dr. Stepanyan’s testimony.

As the sun is leaning towards the horizon in Yerevan on a Wednesday evening, people are getting ready to head home – some will drop by the grocery store to get something for dinner, others will join friends at a café or go watch a movie or just rush to catch their bus. It’s a usual day in a pandemic but people are trying hard to keep the balance, make time for friends and family, and take a moment for self-care. Dr. Naira Stepanyan and her colleagues do not fit into this formula though, because when you are a doctor, an infectious disease specialist, you are privileged to be at the center of the fight against COVID-19, the largest pandemic of the history of humankind.

Dr Naira Stepanyan and her colleague is wearing the uniform and mask.
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Biayna Mahari

“I was so naïve to think that in a month or two, the world would overcome COVID-19, and we would forget about it. I was so determined that we would have a very low number of patients with coronavirus and no deaths. I was confident that we would show the world how to overcome an epidemic. Two or three weeks later, I left home for work having no clue that I will not return home for at least two months.”

“Spring 2020 was very warm, and we had to quickly get used to wearing the uniform, that restrained our movements, as well as masks, glasses all day long. We had to disinfect our hands after touching every patient and there was a constant flow of patients. Every day the rules of the game would change, and we would restart our learning on how to deal with an unknown infection to the world. We also had a great team of medical interns that looked up to us and needed guidance and supervision. With a blink of an eye, the nights quickly turned into days, the days became nights. I do not recall if we had proper time to eat or sleep back then.”

Photos of doctors on the wall with some details drawn with the pen. For example, for one of the doctors angel wings are drawn.
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Biayna Mahari

“Looking back, I only vaguely remember some details from the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in Armenia. It was like standing a step away from the railways with a train passing by. I remember the nights instead. We were provided with hotel rooms for self-isolation, so that we wouldn’t go home and infect our families. At night, I would go out to walk to a store to buy something to eat, and the city would be empty. All entertainment places were closed. It felt like we were ghosts wandering about Yerevan. On the other hand, though, those walks helped to process the day.”

Dr Naira Stepnyan is walking outside of the medical centre.
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Biayna Mahari

“In this past year, I saw many deaths, but it never became an ordinary thing for me. I need time to regain myself each time we would lose a patient. And in those moments, time seemed like an unattainable luxury. The days added up to weeks, then months, and it felt like we were fighting against time at the hospital. I even reduced the quantity and length of video calls with my children, because after each call I so wanted to go home.”

“I did not go home for two months. Many of us did not. We never discussed it, but I felt that there was something hanging in the air, no one wanted to leave the team alone, so we did not even dare to talk about going home. I am the deputy director of the medical centre, and I told myself that I would not go home until my team started to.”

Dr Stepanyan and her team is working todether at the medical centre.
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Biayna Mahari

“The first time I could go home, I thought that I cannot go to my daughters barehanded. I had to get something for them. But all my money was on my card, and I had left it at home. I only had two thousand drams left in my purse. So for the first time in a daytime I went to the supermarket to get something for them and I just froze when I saw a young pregnant woman without a mask. For someone who spent almost 24 hours a day in a masked uniform from head to toe determined to break the chain of infection, the world seemed bitterly unfair in that moment.”

Dr Stepanyan and her coworker are having lunch together at the medical centre.
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Biayna Mahari

“Someone asked me recently if doctors have a God complex after saving so many lives. My answer was a firm no. Quite the opposite, more often than now during this pandemic we felt vulnerable. I would tell my team – let’s do what we know, let’s give it our best but do remember that we are not omnipotent. I am a human being who can get tired, exhausted, angry or hurt. Taking breaks and taking some time for yourself is important. Before the war, we would try to enjoy those little breaks. Despite the social distancing, we would joke together, sing or even dance together. The war took that away from us too.”

As usual, Dr. Stepanyan left for home late that evening. As she drove her car, she was confident that the family didn’t go to bed because they were waiting for her. At home, she can finally relax and forget about Doctor Naira and become mummy again. She will let herself be taken care of, check on the girls’ homework, listen to her hubby’s stories from the day and enjoy her much deserved family time.

Dr Stepanyan is driving to her home.
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Biayna Mahari

She says she has taken after her Dad. She vividly remembers the time in her childhood when one day her mum got sick and she was so sad that she made up her mind to become a doctor one day to help people feel better. And that’s what she does today – helping people recover from COVID-19.

Dr Stepanyan is talking to her husband at their house.
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Biayna Mahari
Dr Stepanyan is playing with her 2 daughters at their house.
UNICEF Armenia/2021/Biayna Mahari

On this World Health Day and every day, we thank our frontline professionals for the dedication and service! Join USAID and UNICEF in sharing their stories. Follow the precautionary measures to break the chain of COVID-19 infection in Armenia.

This article is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government