The urgency to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Iran is increasing by the day.
The fast-growing delta variant has caused a flood of new cases that could overwhelm Iranian hospitals, leaving them with too many patients to manage. As the number of deaths rises and citizens feel that there is no protection, thousands upon thousands of Iranians are fleeing to Armenia.
Ex-Soviet Caucasus country, where vaccine uptake is slow and there has been a lot of vaccine hesitancy, officials have been giving free vaccines to foreigners — a boon that Iranians are afraid for their lives.
Ahmad Reza Bagheri (23-year-old jeweler) said, “I just want she to get the jab as quickly as possible.” He was pointing to his diabetic mother, who he was accompanying on the 20-hour journey to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.
Bagheri’s uncle, who had received his first dose of the drug in the city, would soon receive his second. These stories dominate Iranian social media, as thousands of Iranians travel to Armenia by plane and bus. Last week, Nikol Pashinyan, the acting Armenian Prime Minister, stated that about half of 110,000 Armenians who had been vaccinated were foreigners. Armenia administers AstraZeneca and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines. China uses CoronaVac vaccines.
According to Our World in Data, Iran has the highest COVID-19 deaths in the Middle East. However, less than 2 percent of its 84 million inhabitants have received both doses.
The sanctions-affected country has been able to import some Chinese and Russian vaccines, join the U.N.-supported COVAX program of vaccine sharing, and have developed three vaccines. However, the vaccines are still scarce. Authorities have yet not inoculated non-medical workers or those below 60 years of age, but they promise that mass vaccinations will begin in September.
Ali Saeedi, a 39 year-old garment trader, said that he couldn’t wait so long to get vaccination. He also waited at Tehran bus stations for his journey. “Officials have repeatedly delayed their plans to provide public vaccination. To make it happen, I’m going to Armenia.
Bahareh Khanai (27-year-old secretary) sees the trip as a national service to Iran, and helps with the difficult inoculation task.
It is not clear how many Iranians made the journey to Armenia to get their vaccinations. Armenia remains a popular destination for summer vacations. An estimated 500 Iranians cross the border each day via dozens of buses and taxis, as well as flights. Three weekly flights are now offered by airlines from Iran to Yerevan. As thousands of people plan for bus tours, the cost of these trips has increased by two-thirds. The unprecedented rise in business has been witnessed by travel agents who saw the pandemic that decimated their industry.
Ahmad, the Tehran manager of a tour agency said that “the number of our customers for Armenia has tripled in the past weeks.” He declined to reveal his last name out of fear of reprisals.
According to Iranian semi-official ILNA news agency, scores of Armenians have been left in the buffer zone by the surge of Iranians. Many are also suffering from heat exhaustion. Nearly 160 km (100 miles) from Yerevan, hundreds gathered to get a vaccination shot. Some even slept on the streets in order to secure a spot.
They are supported by hope through the long lines and under unforgiving sunlight. Outside vaccine centers in Armenia, Iranians dance to Farsi music and clap as they get their doses.
Armenian Health Minister Anahit Avanesyan stated that it was impossible to have expected that the humanitarian act would be so popular and widespread and that there would be a large flow of foreigners. “Our citizens are our priority. But I reiterate that the pandemic does not recognize citizenship.”
Armenian authorities promote vaccination tourism but the sheer volume of Iranians flooding the centers for vaccination has forced Armenia to tighten its rules.
First, Iranian vaccine-seekers went to clinics in Meghri, which is just south of Tehran. According to a local doctor who spoke to The Associated Press under anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to the media but reported that at least 100 Iranians had been vaccinated in the area over the past few days.
Last week, however, the government ruled that foreign tourists cannot get vaccinated at Armenia’s five AstraZeneca mobile clinics. It also stated that they must stay at least 10 days in Armenia in order to receive the vaccine.
The new rule was effective immediately. The Iranians who waited in Yerevan for their shot were dispersed. However, medical staff reported that many had booked vaccinations for the next days to comply with the 10-day minimum stay requirement.
The profile of Iranian tourists is changing as cross-border bus trips are now extended vacations. Some flights also route through Qatar. This has made it impossible for everyone to afford the trip due to the high demand.
According to ethicists, although they wouldn’t mind needy foreigners getting excess shots, citizens are not allowed to take any issue with it. However, the new 10-day price requirement and price hike only serve to exacerbate the inequalities of the pandemic.
Alison Bateman House, assistant professor of medical ethics at New York University, stated that “it increases the time and money required… and so the inequality of who is going to have the ability to participate.”
She said that vaccination vacations have “unintended consequences” which increase the possibility of disease transmission. A better alternative would be for Armenian to transfer any excess doses to the international COVAX initiative.
For many Iranians, however, waiting is too costly as scores of people are dying each day from an epidemic that has decimated the economy and health system.
Mohammad Seifpour (48-year-old Tehran resident) grimly looked at the Yerevan vaccination clinic crowds.
He said, “This is because of the terrible situation we are in.”