Turkey has turned into a surprising coronavirus success story, despite fears that its outbreak — at one time one of the fastest growing in the world — would spin out of control and leave the country overwhelmed.Even though its official death toll of 4,729 is disputed by some doctors, who say the real tally is likely higher because authorities include only those who test positive for the virus, the country appears to have averted the bigger disaster some epidemiologists predicted. This has happened despite early missteps and equivocations that allowed a surge in cases, particularly along the Black Sea, which could have been prevented, say analysts.“It’s a fairly small club of countries that have been quite effective in reducing the viral spread,” said Jeremy Rossman, a virologist at Britain’s University of Kent.
He told the BBC that Turkey is among the countries that responded quickly enough with testing and tracing to slow the transmission of the coronavirus without following the example of some European neighbors that opted for total lockdowns. The confirmed case tally is just over 170,000.President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Tuesday the lifting of stay-at-home orders for people over 65, as well as for children, part of a further easing of restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.FILE – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, wearing a face mask to protect against the new coronavirus, and Basri Bagci, the new member of Turkey’s Constitutional Court, greet each other during a ceremony, in Ankara, June 9, 2020.Turkey lifted restrictions on intercity travel and allowed restaurants, cafes, parks and sports facilities to reopen on June 1 after a big reduction in new cases. However, case numbers are still rising in southeast Turkey.The government has been lauding its anti-coronavirus strategy — amplified by a pro-Erdogan press. Last month, Fahrettin Altun, the president’s spokesman, tweeted: “Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan invested billions in health care infrastructure, let top scientists devise a strategy and treated all COVID-19 patients for free. The result? Our recovery rate is almost 75 percent. The pandemic has been contained. #MissionAccomplished.”
The coronavirus came later to Turkey than it did to many of its neighbors. “As the virus raged on in China, many in Turkey wrongly believed that the country would not be affected by the spread of the virus,” said Kemal Kirişci, an analyst for the Brookings Institution, a Washington research group.Time was lost
“As late as mid-March,” Kirişci said,” the Turkish president even predicted economic gains for Turkey emerging from the crisis. Precious time was lost until the WHO [World Health Organization] officially declared a pandemic, coincidentally on the same day that Turkey’s first case was reported, and the country’s vulnerability was finally recognized. Two weeks later, the severity of the situation had still not completely dawned on the president.”Analysts say that at the start, the president had two overriding priorities: to placate his conservative religious base, which led him not to impose an effective quarantine on returning pilgrims from Mecca nor to ban communal gatherings at mosques; and to keep an already badly ailing economy running.FILE – Relatives of Munevver Kaya, who died of COVID-19, wearing face masks for protection against the coronavirus, offer their prayers during a funeral at a special section of Baklaci cemetery in Istanbul dedicated to COVID victims, May 11, 2020.The failure to shutter borders quickly and to quarantine returning pilgrims earned the government a public rebuke from the Turkish Medical Association, which said the early response to the coronavirus was “inadequate.”Contradictions, say analysts, marked early steps in trying to curb the pandemic. In mid-March, the government ordered people to stay at home but also announced tax cuts on flights and hotels to encourage business. Eventually as infection numbers surged, stricter isolation measures were introduced, with cities placed under weekend curfew orders. New cases then started to plateau at around a thousand a day. Senior experts at the WHO have praised Turkey’s subsequent performance.
Its official death toll is 10 times lower than Britain’s — partly thanks, say Erdogan supporters, to the massive investment in the health care system the past few years and the building of new hospitals. The infrastructure has not come close in the pandemic to being overstretched.Science-based response
Much of the credit, though, for averting a disaster is being laid at the door of Erdogan’s health minister, Fahrettin Koca, who, far from the start, urged a science-based response. Highly proactive mayors in Istanbul and Ankara, both opponents of Erdogan, also have been praised.
But the pandemic response, however effective it has been after early missteps, has prompted political alarm. Doctors in Turkey’s southeast and eastern regions, who have disputed the official toll, have found themselves reprimanded and placed under investigation, and reporters and ordinary social media users have been charged with disseminating “fake news” for questioning the rate of infections.“The Turkish authorities’ criminally investigating medical chamber officials is not only an outrageous attack on free speech but impedes the fight against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and obstructs their legitimate work,” said Hugh Williamson of the NGO Human Rights Watch. “The investigations should immediately be dropped, and all conditions imposed on the doctors, including travel bans, lifted.”FILE – Turkish police officers, wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus, arrest a demonstrator during May Day protests against the government lockdown, in Istanbul, May 1, 2020.Rights campaigners say the government has used the pandemic to muzzle and lock up even more Erdogan opponents. On Tuesday, as the Turkish president announced further easing of coronavirus restrictions, hundreds of people were detained on the ground they are adherents of the faith-based Gülen movement, led by cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Erdogan claims was behind a 2016 coup attempt against him. Gulen, a former ally of the Turkish president, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States, denies any involvement.Since 2016, more than 80,000 people have been detained, many of them civil servants or members of security forces. Western governments and rights campaigners accuse the government of using the coup attempt as a pretext to silence Erdogan’s opposition in the country.
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