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In early March, as Iran and countries in Europe were locking down due to the rampant spread of the coronavirus, Turkey proudly kept announcing that it did not have a single case of the virus.
Business continued as usual, tourists were encouraged to keep visiting the country, mosques held mass prayer gatherings and pedestrian and shopping thoroughfares remained packed.
Oytun Erbas, the popular Turkish doctor, even told the media that the coronavirus “would not come to Turkey” because “the Turkish genome is resistant.”
Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved quickly to block travel to Turkey from Wuhan (in China) and Iran, other measures at the time seemed limited to increased screening of arrivals at Istanbul’s airports.
Similar-sized countries such as Germany already had close to 2,000 cases of the respiratory disease.
Neighboring Iran, with about the same population as Turkey, already had close to 10,000 cases in early March.
When at this time authorities in Saudi Arabia detected cases in Makkah, they quickly canceled pilgrimages to the area.
On March 11, Turkey finally reported its first case of the coronavirus.
In response, Fahrettin Koca, the health minister, reassured the public: “If there is an infection in the country, it is very limited. The coronavirus is not stronger than the measures we will take.”
Two weeks earlier, though, the same Koca had applauded China and Italy’s quick lockdowns aimed at preventing the spread of the virus.
The health minister in Turkey does not make decisions on such matters, of course. As in all other important matters, only Turkey’s President Erdogan decides. And Erdogan at the time refused to entertain any lockdown measures.
Within a month of discovering its first COVID-19 case, Turkey emerged as the country with the fastest growing rate of infection in the world.
By April 28, Turkey had more than 112,000 confirmed cases, 2,900 deaths and 33,791 people who had recovered from COVID-19, according to Worldometer data.
Turkey came to surpass even China and Iran in the total number of infections, giving the country of 82 million people the highest infection rate in the Middle East and the seventh highest in the world.
Many wondered how the virus spread so quickly in Turkey. The failure to implement social-distancing policies, closures of public spaces and national “stay at home” orders in a timely manner undoubtedly played a role.
It seems almost certain, however, that Turkey — just like neighboring Iran and countries in Europe — also already had a significant number of infections well before March 11.
Without significant testing before mid-March and a media not allowed to question the government’s rhetoric, people remained oblivious to the situation.
Erdogan’s government in March arrested about 400 people for social media posts on the issue, accusing them of trying to “cause panic” and “sow social unrest.”
Turkish doctors and other experts questioning the government’s response likewise faced dismissal and arrest, with many of them forced to quickly recant their earlier questions and criticisms.
In his first public meeting on the coronavirus crisis on March 18, President Erdogan brought with him members of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs but not a single expert from the Turkish Medical Association.
He told the public that “It is up to us to behave in accordance with the hadiths, to take precautions and leave judgment to Allah. I believe that we will make it through this period with patience and prayers.”
Turkey’s top virologist remains at home even now, completely ignored.
Dr. Mustafa Ulasli was fired from his position in 2016 after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, for alleged links to the Fethullah Gulen movement, which Erdogan blamed for the coup.
Even though he was subsequently cleared of any ties to the coup or the Gulen movement, Dr. Ulasli — along with thousands of other health care workers dismissed after 2016 and many military hospitals closed since then as well — remains blacklisted and forbidden from assisting.
Without a free flow of information about the epidemic or experts who are allowed to speak freely, developing a proper response to the problem in Turkey becomes considerably more difficult.
As in China, even basic information regarding the number of cases in Turkey appears suspect.
The New York Times on April 20 ran a story suggesting that Turkey’s government has not been releasing accurate data on the COVID-19 death toll.
By comparing the city of Istanbul’s mortality rates of 2018 and 2019 compared to this year, the Times “… recorded 2,100 more deaths over recent years between March and April … suggesting a hidden toll.”
The unexplained spike in mortality in the city for 2020 remains unexplained as long as the media in Turkey is not allowed to contradict the government line that the coronavirus threat is contained and not serious in Turkey.
Even now, with the large number of coronavirus cases in Turkey no longer deniable, Erdogan’s rhetoric suggests that he is more intent on preserving his political standing and the national economy than saving lives.
Lockdowns have only been applied sporadically, on weekends and the four-day holiday marking the beginning of Ramadan.
Erdogan told the public on March 30: “Turkey is a country where production must continue and the cogs must keep turning under every circumstance and every condition.”
In addition to tightly restricting the media’s narrative on the issue, the Erdogan government issued a circular preventing opposition parties and non-governmental groups from organizing relief efforts for people facing hardship as a result of the closures that began in April.
Although its distribution of free masks and aid remain very welcome, the insistence that only the government be allowed to assist people in distress seems more political than practical.
Even many of the limited curfews that were finally implemented appear to have been enacted poorly.
On April 10, Erdogan’s government announced a 48-hour curfew in 31 of Turkey’s provinces only two hours before it was set to go into effect.
The decision sent people scrambling to stores and markets to stock up on supplies — leading to long queues and crowded stores and markets, where the virus could of course spread more quickly and easily.
Turkey’s cowed media will not hold Erdogan to task for failures on issues such as this.
Like trees falling in a forest where no one is present to hear, many of Turkey’s COVID-19 deaths will go officially unremarked, lest they prove politically inconvenient for the president.
It seems likely that the people of Turkey will pay a higher price than necessary, in both blood and treasure, for the neo-Ottoman policies of Sultan Erdogan.
A less authoritarian leader would have allowed free discussion of the problem facing the country to assist in developing an earlier and better response.
That response would in turn have been tailored to the exigencies of the crisis rather than the political imperatives of those in power.
Source; Arab News
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