Turkish leaders accused of ‘playing political games’ following Covid response | turkey

On a hot day in Istanbul last July, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in front of the Hagia Sophia to celebrate President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement that the historic building that the secular founders of the modern state made of a museum would be converted into a mosque.

The move was widely seen outside the country as a turning point in Turkey’s relations with the West. In retrospect, the crowds in Sultanahmet Square represented another cultural shift – a shift in the way the Turkish government has handled the coronavirus pandemic after months of closed borders and weekend and evening curfews.

Turks are enjoying a taste of normalcy again after the lifting of a three-week “full” lockdown, the country’s first. Turkey’s health ministry said the number of coronavirus infections fell 72% after record highs of more than 60,000 new cases per day in April.

The success rate has been used as an argument that the country is ready for the crucial summer tourist season. Yet Turkey still has the fifth highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world and doctors said the officially reported drop in new cases was statistically impossible, showing instead a huge reduction in testing.

Turkey’s official Covid-19 toll is 45,186. However, analysis of municipal death statistics shared with the Guardian by Güçlü Yaman, a computer scientist affiliated with the Turkish Medical Association’s Pandemic Working Group, shows more than 140,000 excess deaths across the country over the previous three-year average, leaving 68% of the total number of additional deaths unaccounted for .

Turkey’s health ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Turkey was initially praised by the World Health Organization at the start of the pandemic for taking swift and effective action, but its response sank into a quagmire of U-turns, omissions, errors and half-measures which apparently prioritized political and economic issues to the detriment of public health.

“At the start of the pandemic, there was a real effort to mitigate the risk, but since then the politics have got in the way,” said Dr Cağhan Kızıl, another member of the Pandemic Working Group of the Turkish Medical Association.

“The Turkish government looked at the scientific advice available and decided to use it as a cover according to its own agenda. It’s a gamble: Turkey’s population is young, so most of them are likely to be fine. Managing the crisis is now about making people believe the pandemic is over, rather than fixing it. “

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The country has the fifth highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world. Photography: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

The early days of the Covid-19 epidemic were a very different story. In February 2020, Turkey observed the growing crisis next door in Iran and decided to close the border; Contact tracing teams experienced in dealing with Turkey’s endemic tuberculosis problem were activated the following month, and in April, evening and weekend curfews were introduced in an effort to balance the ‘stopping the movements of people while preserving an already struggling economy.

Problems with the approach, however, quickly arose. Relatively low number of cases, discrepancies in the way doctors have been trained to record deaths and a insistence on the use of hydroxychloroquine, a clinically ineffective antimalarial treating patients with coronavirus has raised early warning signals for the healthcare community.

After three months of restrictions on movement, desperate not to further harm the economy, the government said Turkey was ready to enter a process of “normalization” from June 1. Over the summer, mass gatherings slowly resumed – notably the gathering of crowds at Hagia Sophia.

Colder fall temperatures have also contributed to a sharp increase in cases. But in October, doctors’ fears were confirmed when the government admitted to massively underreporting the number of official cases, only giving the number of “symptomatic” cases in its daily updates.

Yet the fury of healthcare workers and opposition activists has been criticized by Erdoğan’s coalition partner Devlet Bahçeli, who accused the doctors of “treason” and said the Turkish Medical Association should be closed. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) continued to hold indoor rallies, in violation of its own rules.

The government eventually implemented a second period of travel restrictions during the winter, but the rules were lifted too early and in March of this year Turkey was hit with an inevitable third wave.

As most of Europe prepared to start easing coronavirus rules this spring, Turkey’s attempts at half-truths and half-measures finally faltered. The country was forced to finally implement a total locking during the month of Ramadan.

But the reason doctors say it probably didn’t work is the same reason Turkey was reluctant to implement a “full” lockdown in the first place: the government did not have the means to provide a small business financial aid, so many people continued to work.

“There is no financial assistance, or almost none. Even the special loan I took out to pay the rent has a high interest rate, ”said Halil Arslan, who works at a florist in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district.

“The workshop has been around for 15 years but the work has dropped by 80%. We just hang on. “

Further lockdowns are not politically inappropriate if the AKP is to cling to its working-class base: after nearly two decades in power, support for the party has gradually started to wane since the lira crash in 2018.

“We were already facing increasing poverty before the pandemic. Since the lockdown, we have added a large number of “working poor” to the overall numbers. We are doing our best to provide assistance to one in four households in the city now, ”said Esra Huri Bulduk, who runs social service programs in the Istanbul mega-city.

There was also widespread anger at the “two-tier” nature of the lockdown, in which foreign tourists were encouraged to visit and enjoy the country’s sights while Turks were not allowed to leave their homes without. incur heavy fines.

Even the early successes of Turkey’s vaccination program have been overshadowed by major stumbling blocks such as delays in shipments and comments from Health Minister Fahrettin Koca on the use of certain vaccines.

“Saying that some vaccines are not safe to use, then change your mind and tell people to get vaccinated against Sputnik 5 or mRNA vaccines anyway erodes confidence and increases vaccine reluctance. ”Said Kızıl.

“Science is all about uncertainty: that’s part of why it’s amazing. But the Turkish government already seems to have all the answers, even if they don’t add up… We are not beating the virus. We play political games. “

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