A view of Istiklal Street, the main shopping street in Istanbul, deserted amid the coronavirus outbreak, in central Istanbul (photo: AP)
On 11 March, after weeks of denial, the Turkish health ministry announced its first case of Covid-19. Within 10 days, the number of infections skyrocketed to 5,698, scoring the highest transmission rate in the world. On 22 March, Turkey imposed a curfew on people 65 and older. Violators frequently did not meet with traditional Turkish respect for the elderly when police ordered them back indoors. Then, on 27 March, when it became clear that the number of officially reported cases was doubling by the day, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to urge “voluntary quarantine”. Taking his cue, senior officials began to discuss the option of imposing a full or partial curfew.
The call for “voluntary quarantine” came too late and would probably not have come at all had it not been for the unprecedented infection rate, according to observers. On the day Erdogan made his televised address, health authorities reported 2,069 more cases and another 17 dead, bringing the death toll up to 92. The following day, Saturday, added 1,704 confirmed cased and 16 new deaths, bringing the number of people diagnosed to 7,402. The increasingly bleak picture puts paid to the president’s and senior health officials’ long held claim that the situation was “under control”.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, chair of Republican People’s Party (CHP), has urged more stringent measures. When the number of reported cases topped 5,500 last weekend, he called for a “wide, comprehensive and effective stay-at-home and quarantine”. The opposition leader also warned of the need to consider the impact of lockdown on millions of working-class Turks. “It is not possible to solve this issue with campaigns like ‘Stay Home Turkey’, leaving it to the individual will and initiative of the people, while not providing any form of wage or job security and abandoning them to their fate.” He also asked what was happening with the TL 100 billion ($15.2 billion) aid package to help overcome the effects of the coronavirus outbreak that Erdogan and his son-in-law, the finance minister, unveiled two weeks ago.
The rapid spread of the virus confirmed suspicions that the epidemic had begun much earlier. Observers pointed to a sudden spike in pneumonia cases in Turkey and conspiracy theorists, of which there is no shortage in Turkey, went so far as to suggest that “presidential directives” ordered the actual diagnoses covered up. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca denounced the “tendentious” claims and denied that the government was remiss in any way in its response to the threat.
Koca’s previous statements have been nothing if not contradictory. When announcing the first case, he said that “An early diagnosis was made. If there is an infection in the country, it is very limited.” He stressed that hospitals were fully equipped to test people that showed symptoms of the disease and added, “Covid-19 is not stronger than the measures we will take.” Over the following days, the country recorded a faster increase of cases than in Italy.
In the opinion of the writer and activist Cafer Solgun, the situation in Turkey would never have been so bleak and threaten to be bleaker yet had it not been for the arrogance and the “courage borne of ignorance” on the part of political leaders who refused to heed the appeals by medical specialists.
Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, agrees. “Had Turkey responded earlier, confirmed its first case earlier, and used that to introduce stricter enforcement of various rules and regulations, I think the fight against coronavirus could’ve been more effective,” he told Ahval news site on 26 March. He is among those who suspect Turkish officials under reported. “There might have been an earlier cover-up and the picture may be more-grim than it looks,” he said.
Erdemir also questioned whether the ubiquitous government-controlled media could be trusted to provide the public with the necessary reliable information in a crisis of this sort. “Clear, consistent and science-based information from trusted and respected sources is key to fighting any epidemic. Given Turkey’s media and political environment, I would argue that this is very difficult to provide in Turkey.”
Although unintentional, perhaps, Erdemir’s remark was an eloquent response to Erdogan’s attempts to give the Turkish public a false sense of reassurance. “We have preparations for every scenario,” he told the nation on Friday. “By breaking the speed of the virus’ spread in two to three weeks, we will get through this period as soon as possible with as little damage as possible.”
Meanwhile, the Turkish Medical Association (TBB) has complained that government and, hence, its media have not been sufficiently transparent. “The cities and towns where cases were confirmed should be announced publicly as well as death and infected people’s gender and age range,” TBB wrote, adding that transparency and informing the public are what the nation needs in days like these.
Unfortunately, transparency and informing the public is a tall order for the world’s number one jailer of journalists. A number of journalists have already been arrested and questioned for their coverage of the spread of the virus in Turkey. Also, more than 300 people in Turkey have been detained in relation to social media posts related to epidemic. Misgivings about official figures and the government’s handling of the crisis are not restricted to medical professionals.
While many have commended Turkey for its considerable improvements to its medical system during the past couple of decades under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), some have questioned the impact of Erdogan’s penchant for mega projects on healthcare services and, today, the containment of Covid-19. A case in point is the new Ankara City Hospital that Erdogan personally inaugurated last year. The massive 3,800 bed facility sprawling across more than 700,000 m2 has aroused the concern of some critics who, even at the time, complained that “the single hospital model made it harder to control the spread of infections, which is one reason most major hospitals had begun building several separate structures in recent years,” as David Lapeska wrote in Ahval. “During the coronavirus epidemic, these mega-hospitals will actually become part of the problem,” warned Aykan Erdemir as quoted by Lapeska.
Another source of concern is the massive purges that the Erdogan regime instigated following the so-called coup attempt in 2016 because they affected many competent healthcare officials and workers. As a consequence, the Turkish healthcare system is dangerously understaffed. Then there is the problem of Turkey’s huge prison population. “All of the reputable reporting has suggested that Turkey’s prisons could be a horrific petri dish of coronavirus, and we know there are thousands upon thousands of people in prison on questionable charges,” Steven A Cook, senior fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Ahval.
Typical of the Erdogan regime and his party is the proposed amnesty act that promises to release thousands of convicted thieves, drug addicts and rapists while keeping other thousands of opposition activists, independent journalists, intellectuals, professionals and others Erdogan doesn’t like behind bars as fodder for the “petri dish”.
As for the vast majority of the Turkish population, international credit rating agencies fear that the Turkish economy will be among the hardest hit by a pandemic. This is not good news for the vast majority of the Turkish people who have already been feeling the pinch from the sharp economic turndown in their country.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly