Turkey’s coronavirus response may soon turn draconian

On March 10, Turkey announced its first case of Covid-19 and the patient, a Turkish national who had just returned from Europe, was quickly quarantined, as were his family and others who had come into contact with him.

“An early diagnosis was made. If there is an infection in the country, it is very limited,” Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said at the time, adding that hospitals were fully prepared to test people suspected of having the virus. “The coronavirus is not stronger than the measures we will take.”

Two weeks later, the number of confirmed cases in Turkey has surged past 1,500, and 37 people have died - a faster rate of early transmission than Italy. Yet Koca this week dismissed allegations that the government had been sluggish in its response and had conducted too few tests.

Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations, believes Turkey’s outbreak began before it was publicly reported.

“People inside Turkey told me that there was a significant increase of pneumonia cases early on and that the government was trying to suppress diagnoses,” he told Ahval in a podcast “That suggests you’ve had an outbreak longer than the government is reporting.”

Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey programme at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, agreed that Turkish officials may have fudged the numbers when coronavirus first emerged.

“There might have been an earlier cover-up and the picture may be more grim than it looks,” he told Ahval in a podcast. “Had Turkey responded earlier, confirmed its first case earlier, and used that to introduce stricter enforcement of various rules and regulations, I think the fight against coronavirus could’ve been more effective.”

The Turkish Medical Association has warned that the number of cases is significantly higher than those announced by the Health Ministry and Turkish authorities still refuse to reveal the locations of infections or deaths, while detaining journalists who attempt to do so.

A key concern is the extent to which Turkish officials and the mainly pro-government media can be trusted to provide accurate information on the outbreak, particularly in the absence of any real civil society and the suppression of criticism online. More than 300 people in Turkey have been detained for social media posts related to coronavirus.

“Clear, consistent and science-based information from trusted and respected sources is key to fighting any epidemic,” said Erdemir. “Given Turkey’s media and political environment, I would argue that this is very difficult to provide in Turkey.”

Cook credited President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) with vastly improving Turkey’s healthcare system during its 18 years in power, while Erdemir saw Turkey’s much hyped mega-hospitals as a potential liability during the coronavirus outbreak.

Last May, Erdoğan oversaw the opening of one of the world’s largest hospitals, Ankara City Hospital, which cost a billion euros and offers more than 3,800 beds in a building the size of 100 football pitches. At the time, critics complained that the single hospital model made it harder to control the spread of infections, which is one reason most major hospitals had begun building several separate structures in recent years.

In addition, the public private partnership model Turkey embraced to build Ankara City Hospital and 16 other mega-hospitals, were funded with loans in euros, which have been made difficult to repay in the wake of the 2018 dramatic fall in the lira and subsequent drops in its value. Seven of the mega-hospital projects have been put on hold, and on Monday the lira hit an 18-month low of 6.6 to the dollar.

“It’s becoming extremely challenging for the government to make these payments at a time when the Turkish public budget is under enormous strain,” said Erdemir, who also pointed to the medical concerns resulting from oversized hospitals.

“Management is very difficult, hygiene is very difficult, containment of outbreaks is very difficult. I think Erdoğan will learn the hard way the lesson that bigger is not always better,” he said. “During the coronavirus epidemic, these mega-hospitals will actually become part of the problem.”

A last concern is related to the government’s vast purges in the wake of the failed coup of 2016. Many of those dismissed from their jobs worked in healthcare, which is now facing a staff shortage - although Koca said on Monday that authorities planned to hire 32,000 more medical professionals. In addition, some 50,000 people remain in prison in connection to the failed coup.

Several analysts and rights groups have called for the release of thousands of Turkish prisoners, who face serious health risks in prison. The government has suggested it might release hardened criminals, such as murderers and rapists, while keeping in prison those convicted on terrorism charges, which includes those purged after the coup, along with thousands of politicians, journalists and activists.

“All of the reputable reporting has suggested that Turkey’s prisons could be a horrific petri dish of coronavirus, and we know there are thousands upon thousands of people in prison on questionable charges,” said Cook, who saw the government’s plan as a recipe for disaster. “The people in jail for purely political reasons for thought crimes could suffer tremendously for this.”

In recent days, Cook said, the Turkish government had mostly made the right moves, including shutting down businesses and air travel and enforcing a curfew on the elderly. Schools, universities, gyms, cinemas, shops, cafes and bars have been shuttered, while mosques have been closed for Friday prayers. Last week, authorities cancelled all professional sporting events and Erdoğan announced a $15.4 billion aid package to boost the economy and warned people to stay at home.

Turkey has begun producing ventilators and importing a treatment drug from China, and Koca said authorities planned to increase the number of tests in the days ahead, including the use of rapid-test kits received from China. The government raided face mask producing companies on Monday to stop any stockpiling - a move that Cook saw as wise.

“I think the Turks are now on board and understand what they need to do. They are taking the right steps,” he said, while also foreseeing a problem. “As this crisis expands in Turkey it’s going to be harder and harder for health officials and President Erdoğan to maintain this façade that it has always been under control and it’s going to be under control.”

This, along with predictions like that of the University of Michigan’s Onur Başer, who foresees as many as 32 million infections in Turkey and up to 600,000 deaths, could foster a willingness among Turkey’s leadership to embrace more drastic measures that have proven relatively successful in other countries.

“The fact that the Chinese are at least reporting that they haven’t seen any new cases internally for five days is increasing authoritarian temptations among governments,” said Cook. “I think you’re going to start seeing publics who want that, and that plays well to the strengths of authoritarians who can lock their countries down with the use of force.”

Erdemir envisioned Erdoğan seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to solidify his rule via more draconian measures to stop the spread of the virus.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Erdoğan emerges from this challenge with much less legitimacy, but greater political power, greater coercive power,” he said. “That would spell a very dark scenario for Turkey’s future.”


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.