Coronavirus spreading fast in Istanbul shanty towns, mayor says, demanding lockdown

Istanbul districts which are densely packed with housing like Bağcılar, Esenler and Bayrampaşa have shown the largest rise in cases of COVID-19, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu said during a televised interview with Fox TV on Wednesday.

Many districts of Istanbul sprung up at first as clusters of rapidly built unregistered housing before local governments built infrastructure links, drawing them into the sprawl of the city.

The Istanbul mayor said the rapid spread of infections in these districts proved that a comprehensive lockdown was necessary for the city of 16 million people.

“Just 15 percent of Istanbul’s residents amounts to 2.5 million people. That’s why we insist on a full lockdown,” said İmamoğlu, who has been calling for stricter measures in Turkey’s largest city for weeks.

“It’s not just me saying it, it’s the advice of the Science Board,” he said, referring to the board created to advise the Health Ministry on the pandemic.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has resisted calls for a full lockdown, instead imposing curfews on elderly citizens and people under 20 years old. The president said Turkey must strive to “keep the wheels turning” of the economy while fighting against the pandemic.

İmamoğlu said Istanbul had already borne a huge economic cost from the coronavirus, diagnosed cases of which have climbed rapidly to nearly 35,000 since the first infection was recorded on March 11.

“In the 30 days since the outbreak began, the Istanbul Municipality lost 1 billion liras ($140 million),” the mayor said. “All our income has dropped to zero. No buses, no rent. We are holding discussions with all four parties in parliament.”

As the city struggles with the financial burden of the pandemic, it is also racing to implement measures to accommodate the potentially huge number of patients who will require hospitalisation in the coming weeks. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca says the city has the majority of coronavirus cases.

While İmamoğlu welcomed the government’s economic package to mitigate the virus, he said plans to construct a field hospital on grounds near the shuttered Istanbul Atatürk Airport would be a mistake since the area was crowded with houses and had poor transport connections.

“We’ve presented our own dossier to the Health Ministry,” the mayor said.

“We can have a field hospital ready in Yenikapı in a few days. The infrastructure is there, the electricity is there, the generators, the transformers. The same applies for Maltepe and for Beylikdüzü,” he said, referring to alternative sites for field hospitals.