Masked Turkish officials spark disbelief as they dish out top contract in virus outbreak

Turkish officials wearing medical masks took bids for a key construction contract in Turkey on Thursday as millions of the country’s citizens stayed at home on the advice of the government to avoid contracting COVID-19.

The tender, held by the Highways Department, was the first in a series aimed at building Kanal Istanbul, a proposed multi-billion-dollar waterway through Turkey’s most populous city.

The headline project is being pushed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ministers as a means of diverting shipping from the Bosporus Straits that winds through Istanbul and to provide jobs and income for the construction industry, a key political constituency. It is vehemently opposed by opposition parties and environmental groups.

“This is an historic moment – the first country in the world to don masks and hold a tender,” was the headline in the YeniCağ newspaper on Friday.

Photos published by Turkish media showed six officials of the department sitting a metre or less apart. They also sported medical gloves as they sifted through documents. Five companies bid in the tender to reconstruct two historic bridges in the villages of Odabaşı and Dursunköy, which would lie along the proposed 45-kilometre canal.

The decision to accept bids for the construction work comes at a time when medical associations, businessmen and economists are questioning the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The number of new infections jumped by 1,196 on Thursday, or nearly one-third, bringing the total number of people diagnosed to 3,629. The death toll rose to 75 after 16 more people died.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu questioned the timing of the auction, saying the government was tendering the work as residents of the city feared for their futures.

“I am leaving it to the public to judge those who held an auction for Kanal Istanbul today instead of supporting the millions who are fretting about their livelihoods,” he said on Twiiter.all.

The Transport Ministry said in a statement that Imamoğlu’s comments amounted to “political opportunism”, saying the tender was already scheduled and did not undermine efforts by the government to contain the outbreak.

Çiğdem Töker, a columnist for the opposition Sözcü newspaper, suggested the gathering failed to set an example to citizens on principles of social distancing. The tender went ahead because nobody would oppose Erdoğan’s will, she said.

The government’s isolation measures are insufficient, the Turkish Medical Association said this week. It called on the authorities to provide workers with paid leave in order to prevent millions of people from mingling as they went to work.

Erdoğan has yet to announce a tighter lockdown of Turkey’s 80 million citizens, perhaps fearing that such a move would grind the economy to a halt. Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, the president’s son-in-law, says the country is still on target to meet an economic growth goal of 5 percent for this year.  Most economists see now see the target as unrealistic.

The Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD), which represents the country’s largest companies, wrote a letter to Erdoğan this week calling on him to implement stronger measures to boost the economy, Bloomberg reported on Friday. The group’s board also discussed a strict lockdown as a means to contain the virus and to help with business planning, Bloomberg said, citing a person familiar with the matter.

Erdoğan has announced a 100-billion lira ($15.4 billion) package of tax cuts and payment deferrals to support the economy, but the measures fall far short of those announced in Europe.

Some economists in Turkey have criticised the steps for failing to deal with the country’s core economic problems, namely an imminent surge in unemployment and a slump in household income. Instead, the government is still focused on its economic targets and projects, they say.

Among the measures announced by the government was aid for the construction industry. The steps included reducing cash deposits required to secure home loans to 10 percent of total borrowing from 20 percent.

Turkish construction firms have thrived under Erdoğan’s political leadership as he dished out scores of large-scale contracts to build bridges, roads, hospitals, railways and tunnels over the past decade. Kanal Istanbul, rumoured to cost in excess of $10 billion, is set to dwarf them all.