Turkey holds emergency meeting on coronavirus as contagion fears spread

(Updates with news on Erdoğan, long shopping queues)

Turkish ministers gathered for an emergency meeting on Wednesday after the country announced its first case of the coronavirus.

Local media reported that Turkish health workers would be denied annual leave. Tourism firms also requested financial aid from the government as fears grew for the economic impact and spread of the epidemic through the country of 80 million people. Many Turks live in densely populated cities.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, Tourism Minister Nuri Ersoy and Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan met in the capital Ankara to discuss the measures the government would take to contain the outbreak. Koca urged the public to remain calm, saying only one man who had travelled back from Europe had been diagnosed.

“No virus is stronger than the measures we are taking,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told members of his ruling party at parliament on Wednesday in a televised address.

Meanwhile, Turkey's parliament saw a comprehensive disinfection, NTV reported. Teams will be continually disinfecting all areas of parliament, including the office of MPs, it said.

Tourism companies called for delays to tax payments and for loans from a state-run bank to help deal with the impact. The industry is already struggling financially and cancellations of bookings had reached serious proportions, the firms said in a meeting on Tuesday.

Turkey’s government says it has taken immediate measures to contain the virus, such as stopping flights to and from Iran and testing visitors at airports and ports. Hospitals are well prepared to treat any future cases and the country has ample supplies of medicines and masks, it says. The spread of the virus would threaten to slow or stall a recovery from a currency crisis in 2018 that pummelled economic growth.

Leave for health personnel has been cancelled, aside for essential time off for weddings and family funerals, a department responsible for health along Turkey’s borders and coastlines said in a statement, according to the Diken news website. 

Meanwhile, a teachers’ union said schools were ill-prepared for an outbreak. Bathrooms are not clean and schools lack necessary disinfectants and soap, meaning pupils are bringing in their own materials, said Orhan Yıldırım, head of Eğitim-İş, according to Cumhuriyet newspaper.   

Legal proceedings have begun against 29 social media users who allegedly sought to spread concern about the virus, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

Long queues formed in capital Ankara in front of shops selling kolonya, Turkey’s traditional lemon cologne with a high concentration of alcohol, Diken news site reported.

“I think this will protect me from coronavirus because it contains alcohol, that’s why I have lined up,’’ one Ankara resident told Diken.

Turks took to social media to share the frenzy at local markets in large cities as crowds rushed to stock up on staple foods and disinfectant items.

“We came here for our weekly shopping and couldn’t believe it!’’ one Twitter user said, sharing a video of overcrowding at a supermarket chain in Istanbul’s Kozyatağı district. 

Turkish officials have rolled up their sleeves to protect the country’s President, Erdoğan, from COVID-19, Karar newspaper reported.

“Everyone around the president is being monitored with thermal cameras,’’ Karar said. “If anyone with a high fever approaches the president, there will be an intervention.’’

Turkey’s Pegasus Airlines announced on Wednesday measures against the coronavirus, including the more frequent disinfection of airplanes in compliance with manufacturers, Milliyet newspaper reported.

Passengers on all incoming international flights are given health documents, which are then handed to authorities upon landing, it said.

Cabin crew have been instructed on steps to take if any passenger exhibits symptoms of COVID-19, the airline said.

Later on Wednesday, Turkey’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) announced it had launched investigations following claims of unfair price hiking in basic need items and medical devices, Diken news site reported.