One-man rule in Turkey harming its coronavirus response - expert

Authoritarianism in Turkey is harming the country’s response to the coronavirus, said a leading Turkish doctor in an interview with the New Yorker on Friday.

Emrah Altındiş, a professor of biology at Boston College who has been studying the epidemic in Turkey, told the New Yorker that the one-man rule under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has led to unchecked decision making and a clampdown on critical voices among medical experts, as well as a health system weakened by purges and privatisation, and the risk of an outbreak in Turkey’s overcrowded prisons. 

Altındiş said there were two models that had proven successful in tackling the coronavirus outbreak: mass testing, as seen in South Korea, or severe lockdowns, as in Wuhan, China. But, although Turkey has one of the world’s fastest-growing coronavirus outbreaks, it has failed to implement either policy. 

Altındiş said that while the opposition has called for a strict lockdown, and the Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has praised Wuhan and Italy for their strict quarantine policies, Erdoğan remains reluctant to pursue such measures. “Unfortunately, one man decides, and, somehow, they cannot convince him to lock down the cities,” he said.

Altındiş said that working class people forced to go to work every day to maintain their livelihoods will “bring the virus back home to their parents, grandparents, and people with chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, chronic lung disease, or kidney disease. And so we will not be able to stop this transmission”.

Altındiş told the New Yorker that Erdoğan has neither implemented mass testing nor universal shelter-in-place measures because he is likely concerned about the impact of such measures on the economy, but also because the government could be pursuing a hidden “herd immunity” strategy. 

“They already told people over sixty-five or with chronic diseases that they are at risk. And they have never talked about this, but there could be a hidden herd-immunity agenda there. This is a one-man regime right now. He decides,” said Altındiş.

Many doctors, nurses, and academics in the medical sciences have lost their jobs in the purges and clampdown on dissent after the failed coup attempt in 2016, and Turkey has fewer doctors and nurses per capita than other countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), he said.

The well-respected Turkish Medical Association have been asking for a bigger role in fighting the pandemic, but “unfortunately, the Turkish government doesn’t cooperate with them,” said Altındiş. “They had been asking for transparency in the process, and there is no transparency.”

Some Turkish medical experts who shared critical opinions on the government’s response to the outbreak or urged stricter isolation measures have faced arrest and were forced to apologise.

Altındiş said that while the Turkish healthcare system is one of the best in the Middle East, excessive privatisation under Erdoğan has weakened the system, as healthcare has started to be seen as a commodity to make money, rather than as a right. The Turkish Health Minister is the C.E.O. of one of the main private hospital chains in Turkey.

Turkey’s prison population is also at risk, he said. Turkey is one of the top countries that imprisons journalists, politicians, students and lawyers on spurious charges of terrorism – but they will likely not be released in a coming amnesty of prisoners, said Altındiş. “So right now, in these very crowded prisons, there’s a huge risk that we might have infections, and it might kill many people.”

Altındiş said that there are many similarities between Erdoğan and other authoritarian leaders such as United States President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – and that their handling of this crisis will be judged by history. “This is a historical moment, and in the future historians will write about this, and I think that this will be one of the factors: Was there an authoritarian leader in the country or not?”