Questions surround Turkey’s COVID strategy as cases surge

After reopening businesses such as cafés and restaurants, the country marked a two-month high with 14,000 cases.

A vendor wears a protective mask at a fish and seafood stall at a local market in Ankara, Turkey [File: Cagla Durak/Reuters]

Ankara, Turkey – A year on from the first recorded case of COVID-19, Turkey is seeing a resurgence in infections as it begins to take tentative steps towards normalisation.

Last week, businesses such as cafés and restaurants were able to fully open for the first time since they were closed at the start of December when daily cases of about 30,000 saw the government impose evening and weekend lockdowns.

The preventive measures saw the number of cases per day fall to some 6,000 in mid-January, but the figure has since risen with the arrival of warmer weather and virus mutations, reaching nearly 14,000 late on Tuesday, a two-month high.

Reopening public spaces just as infections are on the rise led many health officials to question the wisdom of the government’s strategy.

Vedat Bulut, general secretary of the Turkish Health Association, said an earlier relaxation of restrictions in the summer had shown the risks involved.

“As a society, we have paid the price for normalisation with more deaths and more disease,” he told Al Jazeera.

“It is clear that the way in which the clampdowns are applied in Turkey is not determined by scientific and objective criteria. For example, certain age groups were banned from the streets at certain times and this practice was not found to protect people over the age of 65.”

“The measures were in contrast to the scientific facts of the virus. These practices are arbitrarily stretched according to the interests of capital.”

However, like most countries in the world, Turkey is feeling the financial pain of shutting down parts of its economy to halt the spread of COVID-19 and the government believes it has little choice but to try to get businesses back to work.

A man eats lunch at a self-service restaurant that reopened after the easing of coronavirus-related restrictions [File: Murad Sezer/Reuters]

Beko Ural, a 47-year-old waiter in Ankara, had his shifts cut to a few hours a week as the restaurant where he works was closed and able to offer only takeaway service.

“Since the restrictions were introduced at the start of winter, I’ve been lucky if I earn 500 lira a week,” he said. Turkey’s monthly minimum wage is 2,862 lira ($374). Ural said he had received no additional assistance from the state.

“I’ve got two children who I’m struggling to feed properly and because I couldn’t afford the internet bill, they’ve not been able to keep up with their schooling properly,” he added, referring to online home learning during the outbreak.

“Of course, I’m glad the restaurant has reopened for business but still my working hours are less than before the pandemic. I’m also worried that if the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise, we will be shut down again.”

Grim outlook

The first coronavirus case hit Turkey on March 11 last year as it was still recovering from a 2018 financial crisis. That, coupled with disputes with Europe and the United States and attempts to prop up the plunging lira, led to a grim economic outlook.

According to the most recent official statistics, unemployment in Turkey stood at 12.9 percent in November, a 0.4 percent decrease on the same month in 2019. However, many economists dispute the figure with the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions putting November’s rate as high as 28.8 percent.

The inflation rate, which officially stands at 15.6 percent, has also been questioned by shoppers who say it does not relate to real prices, especially food items.

A survey last month by Istanbul Economy Research found more than eight out of 10 Turks were finding it difficult to stretch their monthly budget because of rising food costs, while a similar number said they had cut their meat consumption.

An elderly couple living in Deliler village near Elmadag is seen after receiving Sinovac’s CoronaVac COVID-19 vaccine in Ankara [File: Cagla Gurdogan/Reuters]

“It’s not only increasing prices but decreasing income due to unemployment and loss of revenue [under the pandemic],” said Can Selcuki, general manager of the research company.

He added: “This comes at a time when the government has received a lot of heat from the private sector, the service industry in particular, because these guys have been paying rent without making any profit for almost a year now.

“Lockdowns and restrictions really hurt and that’s why the government decided to open up.”

To date, Turkey has recorded 2.8 million COVID-19 infections, resulting in more than 29,000 deaths. The United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain, which have smaller populations, have all seen a far greater number of cases and deaths.

The recent relaxation policy has been adopted on a province-by-province basis, with each of Turkey’s 81 provinces placed in one of four risk categories. The low-risk group has been allowed the greatest level of liberalisation, including removing weekend curfews, while the highest echelon has remained more restricted.

The release of new weekly figures on Sunday saw many provinces, including Istanbul, the most populous, move into the very high-risk group. The country’s second- and third-largest provinces, Ankara and Izmir, also moved up a category as infections rose.

“In the last week, current cases have increased by 50 to 60 percent,” said Bulut. “The number of provinces listed as low risk decreased from 14 to 5. The number of high and very high-risk areas increased.

“Even this situation developed independently of the effects of the process initiated on March 1, taking into account the incubation period of the virus. So we’re going to start seeing the effects of these normalisation steps later this week.”

A long way to go

Turkey launched its vaccination programme – using the Chinese Sinovac – on January 14. To date, some 10.3 million people have been vaccinated, including 2.5 million who received a second dose 28 days after the first.

The government is hoping a steady rate of vaccination and lower infections during the summer will see Turkey get over the worst of the outbreak.

Vaccination schemes abroad should also bolster the country’s important tourism sector, providing much needed foreign currency, as well as offering work prospects for casual workers who have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic.

However, the country has a long way to go to get out of the woods, according to Selcuki.

“Now all the restaurants that are reopening will probably spend the next year trying to pay for the commercial loans that they received during the pandemic,” he said.

“The government did a good thing in announcing this more city-based strategy to the relaxation of restrictions. However, one wonders if this couldn’t have been done before.”

Source: Al Jazeera