In Iran, the urgency of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is growing by the day, The Associated Press reported Saturday.
A crush of new cases fueled by the fast-spreading delta variant has threatened to overwhelm Iranian hospitals with breathless patients too numerous to handle. But as deaths mount, and the sense swells that protection for most citizens remains far-off, thousands of desperate Iranians are taking matters into their own hands: They’re flocking to neighboring Armenia.
In the ex-Soviet Caucasus nation, where vaccine uptake has remained sluggish amid widespread vaccine hesitancy, authorities have been doling out free doses to foreign visitors — a boon for Iranians afraid for their lives and sick of waiting.
“I just want her to get the jab as soon as possible,” said Ahmad Reza Bagheri, a 23-year-old jeweler at a bus stop in Tehran, gesturing to his diabetic mother who he was joining on the winding 20-hour road trip to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan.
Bagheri’s uncle had already received his first dose in the city and would soon get his second. Such stories have dominated Iranian social media in recent weeks, as hordes of Iranians head to Armenia by bus and plane, AP said.
Acting Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said last week that foreigners, including residents, have accounted for up to half of about 110,000 people who were vaccinated in the country. Armenia administers AstraZeneca, Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s CoronaVac vaccines.
In Iran, which has the highest COVID-19 death toll in the Middle East, less than 2% of the country’s 84 million people have received both doses, according to the scientific publication Our World in Data.
Although the sanctions-hit country has imported some Russian and Chinese vaccines, joined the UN-supported COVAX program for vaccine sharing and developed three of its own vaccines, doses remain scarce. Authorities have yet to inoculate nonmedical workers and those under age 60, promising that mass vaccinations will start in September.
“I can’t wait such a long time for vaccination,” said Ali Saeedi, a 39-year-old garment trader also waiting to embark on the journey at a Tehran bus station. “Officials have delayed their plans for public vaccination many times. I’m going to Armenia to make it happen.”
Others, like 27-year-old secretary Bahareh Khanai, see the trip as an act of national service, easing the daunting inoculation task facing Iranian authorities.
It remains unclear just how many Iranians have made the trip to get vaccinated, as Armenia also remains a popular summer getaway spot. But each day, dozens of buses, taxis and flights ferry an estimated 500 Iranians across the border. Airlines have added three weekly flights from Iran to Yerevan. The cost of bus tours has doubled as thousands devise plans. Travel agents who watched the pandemic ravage their industry have seen an unprecedented surge in business.