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Turkey and the coronavirus

Turkey has the highest Covid-19 transmission rate in the world and the highest number of confirmed cases in the Middle East

Sayed Abdel-Meguid , Friday 24 Apr 2020
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When the Turkish health authorities officially announced the first Covid-19 case in the country several weeks ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled a TL100 billion (over $15 billion at the time) “preliminary package” to deal with the outbreak, with another announced to follow soon afterwards.

The package “now looks outmoded” wrote Guldem Atabay in the outlet AhvalNews on 17 April. “It was announced in the days when the AKP leadership had either not fully comprehended the extent of the impending crisis, or thought it could play it off through denial. Consequently, there is virtually no financial support in the programme for groups that are most affected by the pandemic,” he said, referring to Erdogan’s ruling party.

Like other economies, the Turkish economy is going through rough times, but “the degree of difficulty is unique,” Atabay, a former director of research and strategy at a major asset management firm in Istanbul, wrote. “Despite tales of the government’s past economic successes, often cited by foreign economists as a basis of hope for the future, Turkey has reached a point where it cannot tackle the economic repercussions of the coronavirus.”

Ankara has closed its mind to the lessons to be learned from other countries, which have mobilised their national resources to fight the pandemic. This is the type of step that Erdogan only takes during election seasons when he and his party’s political survival are at issue, as was the case in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2018 presidential elections.

On this occasion, he dipped into the Turkish central bank’s currency reserves in order to increase public spending in a bid to reverse his and his party’s plunging popularity, scooping up tens of billions of lire just as the Turkish currency crisis struck.

Since then, the country’s foreign currency reserves have dried up, as Atabay observes. “Foreign currency has stopped flowing into the country. Over the past 10 months, the central bank has exhausted its reserves to help the government spur economic growth while containing inflation. Restrictions on foreign exchange swaps, tightened again this week, make it almost impossible for Turkey to acquire hard currency,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s presidency is sending hygiene packages containing a bottle of cologne and five masks to citizens over 65, with a letter expressing wishes for good health.

Since 11 March when Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca reported the first Covid-19 case in the country, Turkey has had the highest transmission rate in the world. On 18 April, Koca announced that the number of confirmed cases had risen to 82,329, exceeding the number in Iran. Turkey now has the highest number of confirmed infections in the Middle East and the eighth highest in the world.

Erdogan boasts an army of medical specialists capable of dealing with the crisis, though many fear that the current rates of infection may soon overwhelm the country’s capacities. Other specialists have sounded the alarm over other potential threats that the government has ignored.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle’s German news outlet, Ali Ekber Yildirim, a writer for the Turkish Dunya newspaper, warned of a food shortage within a few months if the government does not take immediate measures to support farmers. Turkey’s food supplies were already in a “critical condition” due to mounting rates of imports during recent years at the expense of domestic production. Now, with borders closing, flights suspended and countries drawing on their own resources, food imports are drying up and a grave situation looms.

“The government has yet to announce measures that support agriculture and animal husbandry and ensure the sustainability of production,” Yildirim said, adding that as products are disappearing off supermarket shelves, “[food] production must continue in order to avert food shortages and famine.”

It was wrong to apply the curfew that has been imposed on senior citizens and under 20-year-olds in rural areas of Turkey, he said. “If people in the countryside are confined to their homes and cannot go out, agricultural produce cannot be produced, which could cause serious food problems for the cities.”

Products vanished from supermarket shelves as never before as a consequence of the first 48-hour curfew in Turkey announced on 10 April. Food outlets, from supermarkets to local grocers in Istanbul, Ankara and other major cities, were overwhelmed by panic shoppers who had been given only two hours before the curfew went into effect.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu then tendered his resignation, though he said the weekend lockdown had been Erdogan’s decision. He subsequently backtracked and claimed full responsibility before Erdogan rejected his resignation.

Turkey’s ultranationalist parties praised Erdogan’s decision and lauded Soylu. “We are in the same boat in the war against PKK and FETO terrorism,” they exclaimed, referring to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party and the Fethullah Gulen Movement.

Soylu has become a major power centre in the Islamist AKP regime, and he uses many of the techniques associated with Erdogan, including polarising populist rhetoric and ruthlessness. He engineered the purges of the security establishment in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt, sending tens of thousands of people to prison for allegedly belonging to the Gulen Movement.

He then expanded the purges to target all quarters of the opposition, reserving special venom for the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP), human and civil rights activists and independent journalists, nearly doubling the country’s prison population in only a couple of years.

Neither he nor Erdogan will allow the new coronavirus to jeopardise this achievement. As Turkey’s notoriously overcrowded prisons become huge Petri dishes for Covid-19, the government has taken the precaution of granting amnesty to about a third of the nation’s approximately 300,000 inmates, though this has not been extended to political prisoners.

In the opinion of many opposition figures, Soylu’s resignation was a farce stage-managed by the presidential palace as a means to distract from the government’s dismal handling of the Covid-19 crisis. In its desperation to fight the impact of the virus on its popularity ratings, the Turkish government has tightened restrictions on the press and social media and scrambled to monopolise channels for distributing medical assistance and financial aid.

But the numbers of the needy are likely to soar in Turkey, which already had an unemployment rate of 13.7 per cent in 2019, a 2.7 per cent rise over the previous year. In the predominantly Kurdish provinces in the southeast, the unemployment rate has topped 30 per cent, and the economic repercussions of Covid-19 may add millions more to the over five million-strong army of the unemployed, which will intensify competition over dwindling job opportunities.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus has also cast a spotlight on another social ill: domestic violence. According to police data in Istanbul, there was a 38.2 per cent rise in incidents of domestic violence in March compared to the same period last year. In April, there has thus far been a 27.8 per cent rise in reported cases of violence against women in Turkey.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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