Coronavirus Fears Compel Armenia to Close Border with Iran

PM Nikol Pashinyan during the decisive meeting to close the Iran-Armenia border (February 24, 2020)

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.

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. As correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, he covers socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia, with occasional thoughts on culture and urbanism.

5 Comments

  1. “Health Minister Arsen Torosyan took to Facebook Live”… Facebook? (perhaps another source of global disinformation). Why does the Health Minister (or even the Prime Minister and others in the government) use the social media for important announcements? Do we assume that everyone in Armenia is on Facebook or the like? Why not use TV (every household has TV, for sure) for such an important health and life issue? If there are reports that “Travelers from Iran may have already introduced the virus in other neighboring countries”, who can say that Armenia will not be (maybe already is) another neighboring country? Is Armenia immune? Better prepared?
    P.S. I always enjoy reading your articles, Raffi Elliott

    • Well at the moment there are an estimated 1.4 million active Facebook accounts in Armenia (about half the population). Their statements usually ARE re-broadcast on Television and radio as well, but Facebook Live has turned into an important tool for the government to share information quickly and reach as many people as possible.

      The increasing popularity of FB live for government communication has actually been pretty helpful – in comparison to the previous government which had very little daily interaction with the general public – people feel more engaged when they get these video statements directly in their feeds.

  2. Corona virus? But, but Trump said it is just a hoax by the news media and Democrats! Thank you Raffi, we hope Armenian Americans will heed the warning, it is real!

  3. This is a Black Swan. It needs focused coordination by all the countries to avoid what could be a catastrophic pandemic. Until a vaccine is developed which takes a long time, prevention of the spread is an imperative and common sense should prevail.
    The closure of the border with Iran is a prudent and wise move. The spread of the virus, number of people inflicted (including high level government officials), number of deaths in Iran is running very high; especially when there are concerns that the numbers are understated. Iran does not have the necessary capacity to deal with the crisis and they are not transparent about the extent of the problem in Iran.
    Iran has been a friend and a reliable trading partner of Armenia. But in these circumstances, the health and safety of Armenians comes first.
    Finally, this is not a political issue. Undoubtedly all health organizations and agencies are doing their best to contain the virus and its spread. Hopefully they will
    be able to do so. In the meantime “panic” makes the situation worse.
    Follow instructions of Health authorities.
    Vart Adjemian

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