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A closed bakery shop during COVID-19 pandemic in Turkey. Picture: Wikimedia/Maurice Flesier CC (BY-SA 4.0)

More bragging than doing

Actions generally are more difficult to fake than words, and in this case Turkey's boasts are no exception. Weird, discordant and chaotic: How Turkey fails in fighting the Coronavirus.

Published: May 1, 2020, 10:12 am

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    Turkish authorities initially confidently claimed that the situation regarding the infection was under control – until it resulted in more than 3 000 dead people because of the virus.

    On April 30, there were 117 589 recorded cases of the disease, and 3 081 people had died. Turkey now ranks number seven with infected Corona cases – it has even surpassed China.

    How did it happen that the infection rate in Turkey within a mere one-and-a-half months of detecting the first case, had grown at such a frightening pace?

    It is beyond debate that authorities share an exclusive burden of responsibility for badly managing such a serious and all-pervading crisis. Measures which Turkish authorities took in order to stop the spread were mostly perceived as tardy and not efficient enough.

    On March 11, after the first case was announced, Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca sanguinely told state media: “If there is an infection in the country, it is very limited. The Coronavirus is not stronger than the measures we will take.”

    The next day, on March 12, there were already 47 confirmed cases in Turkey. That same day, public prayers at mosques, of which there are about 80 000 in Turkey, were suspended. But it was already too late, as 16 million people had taken part in weekly prayers, while the virus was already present in the country.

    Esin Senol, a professor of infectious diseases at Gazi University in Ankara, noted that the Coronavirus was brought to Turkey mostly by those who returned from foreign countries – and, in particular, by those who had gone on the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. “It appears to have spread long before the first case was reported, due to trips to Europe, Iran and Umrah. Limiting testing of those who had recently been abroad in the early days of the outbreak in Turkey also allowed the virus to spread,” Esin Senol pointed out.

    On March 18, Turkish president Recep Erdogan made a statement saying that Turkey was in a better position than Britain or France and that it would overcome the Coronavirus with “patience” and “prayers”. He also added that if it was managed well enough, for a week or two, Turkey would see a “good picture ahead of us”.

    But the measures that Turkish authorities took in order to achieve that “good picture” were all too often weird, discordant and chaotic. The decision on the introduction of curfews aptly demonstrated this unfortunate situation, which caused a shopping stampede and, accordingly, a complete disregard of the self-isolation requirement.

    In the evening of April 10, the Turkish Ministry of Internal Affairs announced the introduction of a curfew from a midnight of April 11 to a midnight of April 13 in 30 cities. In other words, no was allowed outside for 48 hours. People were literally caught off-guard as they were informed just an hour or two before the new restrictions came into force. So, naturally, they rushed to the shops to stock up on groceries and other necessities. Judging from videos on social media, it is clear that the queues at stores were impressive – not to mention the total absence of self-isolation and compliance with the recommended distance of at least 1 metre.

    Another questionable restriction adopted by the Turkish state, was the dismantling of benches in parks and streets. In this original way, municipalities were trying to prevent contact between people. This measure, apparently, was aimed primarily at stopping meetings of unemployed locals, who by all means resist quarantine and often spend time on the street, talking with friends. Thus, instead of fighting unemployment, the Turkish authorities prefered to fight the unemployed.

    The situation regarding the Turkish healthcare system offers little room for optimism. The country has suffered from a weakened healthcare sector after a failed coup in 2016, when Turkey’s government blacklisted about 15 000 healthcare workers, including a virologist named Mustafa Ulasli, who was allegedly linked to the coup. Moreover, professional medical groups had highlighted a shortfall in equipment, beds and health staff needed to deal with larger numbers of Coronavirus patients.

    “It is evident that Turkish hospitals have not prepared adequately in the two and a half months since this deadly virus first came into the spotlight,” the Istanbul Chamber of Physicians said in a statement.

    One more driver of epidemiological danger, over which the Turkish government openly admits that it has no control, are illegal migrants and refugees from Syria, Libya and other Arab countries. There are 3,6 million refugees in Turkey but no adequate available information about testing them for the Coronavirus nor medical treatment.

    Instead, there are reports by Greek media that warn about Turkish intentions of flooding Europe with Coronavirus infected migrants via Albania and Greece.

    Meanwhile, On March 29, healthcare minister Koca announced that the country had surpassed the peak incidence of the infection: “Turkey is currently at the peak incidence of COVID-19, there is a decrease in the number of infected people. Moreover, the mortality rate from the Coronavirus in the country is the lowest in Europe,” Koca bragged to the media.

    But despite her lofty pronouncements, it remains difficult to ascertain whether such statements represent the real situation or are somehow sugar-coated by the Turkish government, who cherish the hope of starting the tourism season at the end of May.

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