Istanbul eerily braces for the coronavirus

The lull that has settled over Istanbul is unnerving. The megacity of more than 16 million people is usually one of the world’s noisiest metropolises, but now Istanbul is so muted and muffled that it has become a different city.

In my neighbourhood of Göztepe, on the Asian side of the city, restaurants, fast food joints, and cafes that are usually thronged with students from the nearby university are dark and silent, ordered to shut down by the government early last week as part of measures to tackle the coronavirus. The universities are closed, as are schools, mosques, bars, wedding venues, concert halls, gyms, cinemas, and most shops that don’t sell food or essential supplies.

The roads, normally choked with traffic, are running free – half-empty buses still provide services, taxis crawl past desperately seeking fares. The ubiquitous crashing and banging of construction have been silenced in my neighbourhood. Even the skies are quieter, with most flights in and out of the country suspended.

Supermarkets and grocery stores are the busiest places in the neighbourhood, although new customer limits have been imposed. The shelves are generally well stocked. There has been little of the panic buying seen in some countries and the mood is generally calm and stoic, and shoppers queue in an uneasy silence. Some wear face masks, most do not.

Istanbullus - not usually renowned for their respect of personal space - are mostly keeping their distance from each other now that a trip to the shop or touching a surface contaminated with COVID-19 can drastically alter the course of their lives.

People cross the street to avoid others, or scurry past with their faces turned away. Queues have formed outside banks and pharmacies are doing a brisk trade in hand sanitizers and cheap, flimsy face masks. People gingerly touch ATMs with pieces of tissue or using medical gloves. They nudge doors open with their feet. In the local grocery store the shopkeeper sprays the hands of his customers with a sickly-sweet cologne, hoping that its high alcohol content will kill any germs.

There is the feeling of being on semi-lockdown here, not yet the full-blown dystopia seen in some other countries. The Turkish government, projecting a sense of calm and control, has opted for a mixture of both strong measures and a relatively laissez faire approach. It has quarantined thousands returning from pilgrimage in Mecca, announced a $15 billion economic rescue package, and designated many of Istanbul’s private healthcare facilities as pandemic hospitals.

Over 65-year-olds, and those with chronic health conditions, have been placed under a strict curfew - not allowed to leave the house but supplied with food and other necessities by municipality workers and the police if necessary - which in theory, if not practice, should have seen much of Turkey’s aging political elite confined to their homes.

Turkey’s health minister has said there is no need for a general curfew at the moment, but said that people should declare their own “personal status of emergency” and stay at home if possible.

Yet, especially in poorer districts, many people are still travelling to work. Doctors have called on the government to implement paid leave so that workers can stay home to prevent the virus's spread.

Over the weekend the police were asking crowds of people gathered at the seafront to go home, and the municipality began removing benches to prevent people from congregating. The number of people out in public has slowly dwindled over the past week.

In my local park last week there were lots of people exercising on the jungle gyms, and plenty of children in the playgrounds, even after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on people not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary.

By this week there were just a few scattered people strolling around the park, anxious to avoid the occasional panting jogger, just in case. A group of young men played football, while the Marmaray train ran past behind them almost completely devoid of passengers. The normally busy picnic tables in the park were upturned and cordoned off. It seemed so strange that, just as the park was in the first blooms of spring, many people were entering a kind of hibernation.

Erdoğan has said Turkey might overcome the virus in two to three weeks, but there is the sense among many that the government has been too slow to react to the virus and now the country is on the cusp of a full-blown outbreak. Turkey’s first confirmed coronavirus case was only announced on March 11. By Thursday the numbers infected in Turkey had risen to 3,629 and the death toll to 75. But the government has tested for the virus in relatively low numbers, and many people do not trust the authorities and believe the real number of infections to be far higher.

Some of the dithering by the authorities has been reflected in Turkey’s fanatical devotion to football. While every other major European league had been suspended, the Turkish Super League played on for a while in front of empty stands, until players started to voice their concerns and it too was finally suspended last week.

The Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano said: “There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than stands bereft of spectators.” A similar logic applies to the largely deserted, usually hectic, colourful plazas and streets of Istanbul – they also hum with an eerie silence.

In the evening the quiet is thick and ambient. I scarcely even see or hear my neighbours. It is like everyone is battened down and braced for a storm to erupt. 

The call to prayer still breaks the silence five times a day, the sound carrying much more loudly and clearly through the hushed city air. And at 9 p.m. each evening a minor racket breaks out as people take to their balconies or open their windows to clap and bang pots to show their gratitude to the doctors and nurses working like crazy in hospitals that may soon be overrun with coronavirus patients.

Then the city slips back into silence.

Tom Welch is a reporter based in Turkey. We publish his articles with a pseudonym, due to safety precautions.