YEREVAN—Amid concerns over the deadly outbreak of the coronavirus in Iran, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has announced that Armenia’s lone border-crossing point with the country will be temporarily closed. The two-week travel ban, which was announced late Sunday night, has also resulted in the immediate interruption of commercial air traffic between the two countries. The Prime Minister did mention, however, that freight traffic would be exempt from the ban.
Authorities in Yerevan have been facing mounting public pressure to seal the border following news that Iran may have covered up the initial outbreak of the virus which potentially caused up to 50 deaths across the country. The decision comes barely three weeks from the start of Nowruz—Iranian New Year. In recent years, Armenia has emerged as a popular destination for Iranian vacationers with many drawn to the country’s relative openness and abundance of affordably-priced alcohol. Tourism from Iran has likewise become an important source of revenue for businesses, tour companies, hotel operators and restaurants in Armenia, significantly impacting the local economy. Last year, Armenia welcomed almost a quarter million visitors from Iran, tens of thousands of which came during the week-long Nowruz celebration.
The impending entry of such large numbers of foreign visitors has compounded concerns over the Armenian healthcare workers’ ability to provide effective screenings against the virus. As late as Sunday morning, authorities have been insisting that the threat was overblown, and potential outbreaks are containable. In an attempt to dispel some misconceptions over the global crisis, Health Minister Arsen Torosyan took to Facebook Live on Sunday to explain his ministry’s contingency plans. “While there are extreme cases where coronavirus might cause death, the figures are comparable to the common flu,” the minister said. After discussing the virus’ symptoms, Torosyan advised citizens to avoid shaking hands and touching their faces before washing their hands. Though the Minister dismissed closing the border as not yet necessary, many of those who tuned into his live stream were not convinced. “Close the border now” quickly reached the top comments under the video.
Warnings by the Health Minister and other government officials against spreading unsubstantiated hearsay and hysteria over the coronavirus did little to dissuade some online publications from doing just that. The online rumor mill Blognews.am has been sharing a conspiracy theory blaming the Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros for instigating the global outbreak of the virus. Prominent scientists have already publicly denounced this claim as well as others, asserting that bats in China’s Wuhan province have been confirmed as the source. “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumors, and prejudice that jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against this virus,” the statement says.
The lockdown on cross-border traffic has been in effect as of Monday morning and will be reviewed at the end of two weeks, according to Pashinyan. “Citizens returning home will be exempt from the restrictions,” the Prime Minister specified. “This applies to both Iranian citizens in Armenia and Armenian citizens in Iran—both of whom will be free to return home.”
Travelers from Iran have may have already introduced the virus in other neighboring countries. Later on Monday, according to the BBC, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain reported their first cases, all involving people who had come from Iran. Officials in Bahrain said the patient infected there was a school bus driver, and several schools had been closed as a result.
The global coronavirus epidemic has seen the number of infections grow to almost 80 thousand across 37 countries. So far 2,629 deaths have been reported. There are still no confirmed cases in Armenia.