Low number of reported coronavirus cases in Turkey raises eyebrows

''It’s worth noting that Arsenal now has as many reported cases of COVID-19 as Turkey. Juventus has more.''

This ironic social media commentary made earlier in March summarised what many concerned Turkish citizens -- apparently a minority -- were asking themselves about whether their government, reputed for arrogant non-transparency, was once more engaged in a massive cover-up over the spread of COVID-19.

At the time of writing this article, Turkish Health Ministry officials had declared just two confirmed cases of coronavirus. Turks’ natural confusion is therefore justified, especially when their eastern neighbour, Iran, has more than 8,000 cases of COVID-19 and is one of the peak countries of the pandemic.

Most people in Turkey are in the dark because of state control of the media. Until very late, even the so-called alternative media did not seem to grasp the gravity of the pandemic, focusing on the tumultuous political stage instead. This collective failure to inform the public may eventually be seen as the cause, should coronavirus cases rise geometrically.

What is the reality?

If anybody, Turkish doctors should know the truth. I talked to doctors who pointed out that the well-established Turkish Medical Association requested permission to mobilise mass testing of citizens across Anatolia. However, since the organisation is seen as oppositional and far too autonomous for the government, its requests were ignored.

This was enough to raise eyebrows, said a doctor who works at the American Hospital and who, out of safety concerns, asked to remain anonymous.

Unlike the situation in many other countries, doctors in Turkey pointed out the core matter that explains the air of hush-hush is the monopoly the Turkish state holds on the testing process and its draconian control over hospital records.

“Thus far, Turkey has been using its own virus detection (real-time PCR) kits,” said Dr Ergin Kocyildirim, a heart surgeon and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine in the United States

Writing for the international affairs magazine published by the Centre for the National Interest, Kocyildirim added: “Those kits are produced and manufactured in Turkey by an authorised private company funded by governmental institutional grants... Existing conventional PCR testing might take about 24 hours. Turkey claims its test is the fastest and the most accurate test in the world.”

“Also, until today, those tests were all performed at a central testing facility; every hospital sent samples to the nation's capital. To date, Turkey has done about 2,500 tests. The lack of any identified cases provoked suspicion because if the test is negative, there was no other way to prove that the test might be positive,” he said.

Another doctor, apparently frustrated over the lack of cooperation between the government and private hospitals, said: “These tests raise suspicion because we have no way of verifying whether those tests were done on COVID-19 kits or kits on some other diseases.”

However, given that the International Monetary Fund announced a large budget to combat the virus and following the World Health Organisation's declaration that this is a global pandemic, some steps announced by the Turkish government are seen as positive. Following the suspension of flights from Italy, Iran and China and a border closure with Iran, Turkish schools will be closed for up to three weeks starting March 16. Spectators will be barred from sports events and parliament will be closed to visitors.

Whether these measures prove to be half-hearted remains to be seen. It is well-known that in a predominantly Islamic country, with a population exceeding 80 million, one of the main potential public risk spaces are the mosques. Sociologically, Turkey stands out as a place -- with more than 100,000 imams (on state payroll) and as many mosques -- where public prayers gather very large masses, almost to the point of fetishisation.

Turkey's mighty Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) ignored expectations to shut down the mosques as part of the measures. This is a cause for concern but not surprising.

During such a time when the rest of the world is considering how to cope with this global disaster, Turkey, along with many other Islamic countries, is facing a test on sound reasoning. They will probably fail this test, possibly until they must face the harder truth.