COVID-19 Update – South Caucasus and Iran
As the fight against COVID-19 continues, we examine the widely differing responses of each Caspian region country in battling the epidemic. In this, part one, we look at Iran and the South Caucasus.
Tehran, Oct 25, 2020. Farzad Frames/Shutterstock
The COVID-19 situation in Iran has been one of the most disastrous in the region. According to Reuters statistics, August has seen Iran experience its highest infection rates since the beginning of the pandemic. Almost 50,000 new cases were discovered on the worst day (August 17), and daily deaths topped 500 for much of the month - nearly one every two minutes at one stage. Around 23 million doses of vaccine have been dispensed, but only 7% of the population is thought to have so far been fully double-vaccinated, a situation that has proved lower than anticipated due to a series of factors. At the start of the outbreak, Iran had started to develop vaccines of its own, and local labs are at different stages of rollout on some 14 possible jab types. However, the work has taken far longer than had been hoped, doubtless complicated by US-led sanctions which continue under the Biden regime in Washington thanks to stalled nuclear talks in Vienna. The Islamic Republic initially banned the importation of vaccines developed by the US and the United Kingdom, citing Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s fears that such vaccines produced in hostile nations might be “unreliable and may propagate the infection.”
In Iran🇮🇷, one person is dying of #COVID19 every two minutes. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has banned imports of Western vaccines, saying they were unreliable and may propagate the infection. https://t.co/CsNIiSG6an via @Reuters @drandrewb #vaccination #GlobalHealth— André Picard (@picardonhealth) August 12, 2021
Andre Picard, health columnist at Canada’s Globe & Mail newspaper, tweeted reports on Iran’s COVID situation.
Instead, Tehran imported a limited stock of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. However, a general lack of availability has led significant numbers of Iranians to take ‘vaccination holidays,’ notably to neighbouring Armenia. Meanwhile, locally designed vaccines are reportedly nearing production, with 10 to 15 million doses projected by the end of September. In parallel, the new Iranian government has softened its posture on Western jabs and declared on August 22 that it would be seeking to import around 30 million doses of Pfizer and/or Moderna from European countries by late September.
Following previous peaks in June 2020, May 2021 and the worst in November 2020, Armenia appears to be heading into a fourth wave. In mid-August, numbers briefly peaked again, but within a few days, with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan warning against complacency, the climb in numbers continued. While the overall pattern is not dissimilar to those in other countries (the infections are currently around 125 per 1 000,000), the death rate is worrying. The number of people succumbing is as high as one percent of the population. Armenia has approved three vaccines against COVID-19: Russia’s Sputnik V, China’s CoronaVac, and AstraZeneca’s Vaxzevria, but inoculation rates among the population remain at pitifully low levels. Negative press meant that locals were particularly reluctant to receive the AstraZenica shot, so when a large new batch of those vaccines arrived in May, Armenia offered them free to citizens of neighbouring countries (most significantly Iran), creating an intriguing wave of inoculation tourism.
A Voice of America video report shows Iranian ‘inoculation tourists’ in Armenia queuing for a free AstraZeneca jab.
The result was a comparative flood of Iranians, visitor numbers rising 50% in two months with reports suggesting queues of up to 13 hours at walk in centres. The Armenian government’s tourism committee has encouraged travel agencies to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity, seeing the situation as an economic windfall since Armenian law mandates that any foreigner coming to the country to get vaccinated must stay for at least ten days before their jab.
Azerbaijan’s current infection rate is being reported at around 264 cases per 100,000 people, with 4203 new cases on August 27 alone - a figure approaching the all-time high that the country suffered in December 2021 (4451 on one day). Sadly death rates are rapidly rising towards December levels too, even though vaccination rates are comparatively advanced (around 35%).
Baku streets being disinfected in the early fight against COVID.
Official statistics suggest that over 54% of cases are in the capital, Baku. As with so many countries in the region – especially in Central Asia – definitional differences or lack of testing is believed to have severely underestimated the COVID-19 death rate per capita when looking instead at numbers of excess deaths. This must all feel very ironic in a place that took very strong measures like disinfecting whole city streets and - especially in 2020 - took relatively draconian measures to enforce a tight lockdown. Most residents spent significant periods confined to their homes except when granted three-hour exit permission by SMS (limited to once a day). And though somewhat less stringent of late, quarantine rules have been extended until at least the start of September. The financial impact of locking down the country for so long is also likely to have lasting consequences. However, a Special Coronavirus Response Fund has started providing a multi-million-dollar stimulus to alleviate financial strain on the healthcare system. In a remarkable move both the president, Ilham Aliyev, and his wife, first vice-president Mehriban Aliyeva, have reportedly donated their entire annual salaries to the fund.
Georgia reported record high COVID-19 rates for much of August, with infections peaking on August 17 and daily deaths topping 80 on August 26. This recent surge has decimated the country in what journalist Giorgi Lomsadze called a “triple whammy of vaccine hesitancy, slow vaccine rollout, and the widespread neglect of mask mandates and other lockdown rules.” The country is currently experiencing one of the highest per-capita death rates in the world, with a vaccination rate that simply cannot keep pace: only around 6% are fully inoculated. However, the Georgian government has been implementing measures to help, with stricter social gathering laws and fines levied against mask-less individuals. Since August 16, the Georgian Defence Force has been enlisted to improve vaccine rollout, and on August 28 alone, 20,678 doses were administered, with total active COVID cases dipping below 50,000. Restrictions are due to stay in place until at least September 4.