How is Turkey dealing with the corona crisis?

Going by the official numbers, Turkey is doing well, especially in comparison to other countries. But does this impression correspond to the reality? There are significant reasons to doubt that it does. By Tayfun Guttstadt

By Tayfun Guttstadt

Turkey is an international hub, not only due to its geographical position, but because of the huge network of refugees that centres there. It is therefore hard to believe that so far, only a few people in Turkey have come into contact with the new coronavirus. In neighbouring Iran, meanwhile, a catastrophe is in progress – partly because the government there played the situation down for so long. After some initial hesitation, the Turkish government is now taking decisive action, and is also keen to help its neighbour.

Of course, Turkey is not Iran. The country’s infrastructure is significantly better, and the government less blinded by ideology than the mullahs' regime. All the same, the situation doesn’t seem as rosy as Turkey would like the international community to think. Information is trickling out of individual hospitals, where the talk is of overcrowding and overstretched staff.

Carefree return to everyday life

Until recently, people were still returning to Turkey from Europe, including from Spain and Italy – with no checks for potential infection, let alone a quarantine period. Inhabitants of Istanbul report that people newly returned from Spain have been resuming their social life in the chronically overpopulated metropolis without any kind of warnings or restrictions.

There has been some attention given to the news that a group of 500 pilgrims freshly arrived from Mecca have returned to their normal lives in the Black Sea province of Rize. The sacred sites in Saudi Arabia themselves, meanwhile, have been sealed off and are now deserted.

Employees of the Zekai Tahir Burak hospital in Ankara following the announcement of a suspected corona case in the Turkish capital (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Hohe Dunkelziffer wahrscheinlich: Nach offiziellen Angaben der türkischen Regierung hat es seit Beginn der Corona-Krise am 17.03. einen einzigen Todesfall gegeben. Die Zahl der Infizierten habe sich auf 98 Personen erhöht. Inzwischen wurden aber auch in der Türkei Reisebeschränkungen erlassen. Schulen und Universitäten wurden geschlossen, ebenso wie Kinos und andere öffentliche Räume. Massengebete in Moscheen sind verboten.

The health minister, Fahrettin Koca, did recommend a quarantine period for returning pilgrims, but no measures were put in place to enforce this recommendation. The mayor of Cayeli, a town in Rize, even went to visit one of the pilgrims at his house and shared the video of the visit online. The local doctors’ association has called for stricter controls and a detailed record of the people and places the pilgrims have visited since their return, though at the same time admitting that in this case, it is already too late.

Turkey has now ceased all flights to and from Europe, and schools and similar institutions have closed for the time being. Shops, bars and restaurants, leisure facilities and the like have been instructed to close their doors from 17 March. After one final large Friday prayers, at which the president of the ministry for religion Ali Erbaş bizarrely called on the many people present to avoid large gatherings, Friday prayers and all other communal prayers are now banned nationwide.

But not everyone intends to stick to these rules: in many places, the faithful are declaring that only God has the power to decide over life and death, and they will carry on holding prayers regardless. And it is not just in the religious sections of the population that fact and virus-resistant voices are being heard. People strolling down shopping streets tell astonished journalists that they aren’t frightened of being around other people: after all, there are no viruses to be seen anywhere. Just as in Germany, the whole of society is faced with the difficult task of making the seriousness of this situation clear at least to a majority of the population.

Conspiracy theories and populism are spreading rapidly

With all this comes angry racist and populist rhetoric: in minibuses, people give uncalled-for lectures, saying that the "damned Jewish race" is behind the pandemic, as the videos circulating online show. Media outlets close to the government are joining in: on the ATV channel, which is also accessible from Germany, a commentator billed as an "expert" on the corona crisis says that of course, the virus is being spread by those who already have the medicine to treat it – adding that Israel is on the point of developing a vaccine. The interviewer, seeming concerned that not all viewers will have understood what is being said, puts in: "Does that mean that Israel invented the virus?" "Yes, exactly!" the expert replies with satisfaction.

The leader of the Islamic splinter party Yeniden Refah Partisi, Fatih Erbakan, gave a rather more modest statement: there is no clear proof, he said, but it is likely that Zionism is behind the virus. Fatih Erbakan, incidentally, is the son of Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of the Milli-Gorus movement that operates in Germany under the name IGMG.[embed:render:embedded:node:39498]Fortunately, this anti-semitism has mostly had no direct consequences for Jews in Turkey. People from East Asia, by contrast, have been subjected to increased stigmatisation and even physical violence. On social media, people from Korea, China and Japan have reported open hostility and insults, people blaming them for the virus, threats, and even violent attacks. Some of these people have announced they want to leave Turkey immediately.

Fighting corona requires a joint strategy

In reality, however, it may well be those at the very bottom of society who are hardest hit: workers already living in poverty, depending on every lira they can earn, who will keep going to work so that they don’t starve; the millions of refugees, who often live crammed together in unhygienic and unhealthy conditions; and the homeless, for whom the weak social welfare system provides no cushion.

The situation on the borders is one that the Turkish authorities need to keep a very close eye on. In the west, the extremely precarious situation in the Greek reception camps could escalate at any moment, and many of these are close to the Turkish border. The island of Lesbos is just a few kilometres from the Turkish mainland – if the catastrophe should hit there, a lot of people would be certain to flee, this time heading towards Turkey.

At the other end of the country, Turkey has a border with Iran, where the coronavirus is raging almost unchecked. Northern Iraq is already reporting increasing rates of infection, and has put extensive restrictions in place, while the situation in Syria is impossible to assess. In order to avoid matters worsening, the region’s nations need to agree on a joint strategy before even more refugees are crushed between the sealed borders.

"Turkish genes" offer no protection

In view of the pitiful picture that the EU countries are painting in terms of communal spirit and solidarity in the face of this crisis, this is an almost utopian idea. All the same, the Turkish ministry of health claims it is supporting Iran with numerous medical supplies, including 1000 quick tests, 4000 N95 masks and 78,000 breathing masks. The reliability of the Turkish testing kits is questionable; just a few days ago, the government was still saying it had no way of testing people.

After initially ignoring the crisis, the Turkish government has now, for the most part, acknowledged the seriousness of the situation, at least within its own borders. Until recently, there was speculation on television that Turkish genes" might provide protection against coronavirus, but a hotline has now been set up that includes advice in Arabic. Instructions on limiting social interactions and maintaining the necessary standards of hygiene are being broadcast on all state channels. The first thing that appears on the health ministry’s website is a video with 14 tips for the best way to deal with the pandemic.

According to state sources, only 359 people have so far been infected with the virus and four have died. More than a few voices are suggesting that the real figure is considerably higher.

Everything now stands or falls depending on the Turkish government’s ability to suppress false allegations and conspiracy theories in favour of more medically correct and forward-looking information, to deal honestly with its own shortcomings, and to offer co-operation to its comparatively much weaker neighbours.

Tayfun Guttstadt

© 2020

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin