The failure of Iran's vaccination process has led hundreds of Iranian citizens to cross the border into neighbouring Armenia in an attempt to receive doses against the coronavirus. According to Iranian customs spokesman Ruhollah Latifi yesterday, "in the last 48 hours, 1,800 Iranians have crossed the border checkpoint between the two countries". Armenia's ambassador to Iran, Artashes Tumanyan, has announced that vaccination in his country will be free of charge. However, only tourists staying more than 10 days on Armenian territory will be able to receive the vaccination.
Flight fares from Tehran to Yerevan have risen sharply, reaching as much as $300. However, all planes travelling to Armenia are fully booked. This situation has caused the Armenian authorities to tighten measures, as there are only 5 vaccination points for foreigners in the whole country, so they must avoid large crowds as seen in several videos circulating on social networks. "This decision means that Iranians are forced to travel and spend a lot of money and stress about getting a vaccination. We wouldn't do it if we had a choice," says a 53-year-old Iranian woman who is not yet eligible for the vaccine.
The Armenian Tourism Committee has reported an increase in the number of tourists. The number has grown from 41,881 in April to 64,101 in June. The number of people entering Armenia from Iran has also increased from 2,516 to 5,592 during the same period. Yerevan has also seen arrivals from Syria and India for the same purpose, however, Iranians still make up the largest group, accounting for 80 per cent of tourists in the capital. "The city is overflowing with tourists, in the streets you hear more Iranian than Armenian, and at the vaccination booths there are long queues of Iranians and pushing and shoving from those trying to jump the queue," a Yerevan resident told EFE.
In addition to the crowds in the Armenian capital, Iranians also crowd at the border. At the border checkpoints there are queues for PCR tests, as one can only enter Armenian territory with a negative test. Due to the high summer temperatures, there have been fainting spells at the border and several ambulances have had to be moved to the area.
Many Iranians have decided to cross the border because of the successful experiences of other citizens and the chaotic vaccination plan developed by the authorities. Moreover, no visa is required, and the journey from the border to Yerevan takes seven hours.
Of the 82 million population, 4.7 million have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while only 2.2 million have received the full course of vaccination. At the moment, according to the health programme, only people aged 60 and over can receive the drug. In addition to the slow pace of vaccination, the process is proving particularly difficult. Queues up to 100 metres long have formed at health centres as people wait for hours to receive doses that have sometimes run out.
The drugs used by the Iranian health authorities are the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, Sinovac and Siniphram from China and AstraZeneca doses made in India. Moreover, since the end of last year, the Iranian government has promised to develop its own vaccine, COVIRAN Barekat. In December it also said it would begin administering this domestic drug in the spring, although much of the population doubts its effectiveness and fears that it will produce serious side effects.
Iran has been one of the countries most affected by the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. It is currently facing a fifth wave with high numbers of deaths and infections, while vaccination is progressing slowly and with many errors. In total, the country has recorded more than 3.4 million cases and 86,692 deaths. "We decided to go to Armenia because we won't be vaccinated in Iran for many months, and if we get infected, we might die because of the situation in the hospitals," a 30-year-old Iranian told EFE. The Delta variant, first detected in India, is causing much of the new infections within the country. Health officials have reported high numbers of children admitted to hospital because of this strain of the virus.
Travel to Armenia has caused controversy in Tehran and the Iranian government has announced the arrival of millions of doses and the production of 50 million COVIRAN Barekat in order to calm social unrest.