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Has Turkey lost control of the coronavirus pandemic?

December 15, 2020

For a long time, the Turkish government sugarcoated COVID-19 figures, excluding asymptomatic infections from official tallies. But the situation is dramatic. New curfews are meant to help reduce the number of cases.

A couple sits on the water in Istanbul
Image: Ozan Kose/APF/Getty Images

For her eighth birthday, Iris Ertekin asked for a Harry Potter cake and a party with her best friends. As the kids ran around the playground in Istanbul's Kadikoy district, their parents set up cake, snacks and tea on a camping table they had brought along. Organizing a birthday party outdoors means families have to keep an eye on the clock these days: Turkey's new coronavirus measures stipulate that children and young people under the age of 20 are only allowed outside for three hours a day during the week, between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

"I used to be able to go out whenever I wanted to, that was much better," said Iris, adjusting her blue-patterned face mask. "I miss school, too. Now it's all on Zoom - and it's totally annoying." Turkey had just begun to allow children to return to the classroom in September — only to close the schools again in late November and move back to online teaching.

Birthday celebration in Istanbul
Birthday parties during the pandemic: Outdoors only, and with a time limitImage: Julia Hahn/DW

Lockdown measures too late?

Iris' Ertekin's mother, Gülay, tries to organize life between work and the curfew as best she can. She is often surprised at how quickly the children come to terms with the difficult situation. "The kids wear their masks without grumbling, even when they play. They've gotten used to it," she said. "It's only when we look at old photos that we notice that there were no masks then." The fact that the number of coronavirus infections is rising sharply in Turkey worries her. "Acquaintances of ours were infected, there have been cases at school, and a relative has also been infected," she said. For a while, it seemed the virus was far away, but she realizes it is coming closer, she continues.

The curfew for children and young people is not the only new measure in Turkey's fight against the virus. Elderly citizens over the age of 65 are also only allowed to be outdoors at certain times. Buses and trains are banned for young and old people. And for the first time since May, a complete lockdown is in effect over the weekend — everyone, with a few exceptions, must stay at home. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also announced a four-day curfew around New Year's.

Children play at a birthday party in Istanbul
Coronavirus curfews: Children like Iris are only allowed outside for three hours a dayImage: Julia Hahn/DW

These days, the usually bustling neighborhoods in a city of 16 million people look desolate. Restaurants, bars and many stores are closed and entire streets are deserted. But the measures come too late, according to health experts.

Sugarcoating the situation

From July to the end of November, the Turkish government made public only the comparatively small number of COVID-19 patients with symptoms. As a result, people thought the country was managing the crisis relatively well. In the meantime, the authorities have begun to make public the number of asymptomatic cases. In the process of doing so, it's become clear that Turkey is one of the countries worst affected by COVID-19. The Ministry of Health reports more than 30,000 new infections every day — more than at any time since the pandemic began.

Istanbul's abandoned pedestrian zone
Closed restaurants and bars: The abandoned nightlife district of KadikoyImage: Julia Hahn/DW

The official number of daily deaths from COVID-19 more than doubled in the past four weeks to over 200 per day. The government has also revised the total number of infections since spring from about 550,000 at the beginning of December to more than 1.8 million in mid-December. Many Istanbul residents feel deceived. "We are angry about how the government is managing this crisis, but we can't do anything about it anyway," a resident said. "The government is mainly concerned with its reputation, they want to look good and that's why they are so non-transparent," said another resident.

Hospitals and health workers pushed to the limit

For months, critics have accused the Turkish government of concealing the true extent of the pandemic, for the most part to protect the economy. The fact that Ankara has long failed to publish complete case figures encouraged the spread of the virus, the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), the largest association of medical professionals in Turkey, said recently, adding that the government "lost control of the pandemic."

TTB member Emrah Kirimli, a family doctor, has seen many COVID-19 patients. He said the authorities are still whitewashing the crisis. "Even now, we have many more cases than the government declares," he said, adding he estimates there are 50,000 to 60,000 new infections every day. "The hospitals and intensive care units here in Istanbul are full, there is no more room. Our doctors are at their absolute limit. We urgently need to take radical countermeasures now."

Physician Emrah Kirimli
"We need radical countermeasures," says Istanbul doctor Emrah KirimliImage: Julia Hahn/DW

Opposition politicians, including Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, are urging more radical measures as soon as possible. The number of people who have died from COVID-19 and are buried every day in Istanbul alone is almost as high as the number reported by the government for the whole country, he said a few days ago — a figure Ankara has dismissed. The measures taken so far have made little difference as "the numbers are not going down," Imamoglu said. "We need a complete shutdown." To stop the spread of the virus, public life in Istanbul must come to a complete standstill for two to three weeks, the mayor said. Observers do not expect the government will take that step: Time and again, President Erdogan said the goal was to prevent further damage to the Turkish economy.

According to 8-year-old Iris from Kadikoy, the current measures are harsh enough. It's often boring at home, and no one really knows when her school will open again, the girl said as her party wound down after the allotted three hours outside. Her birthday wish for next year? A birthday without the coronavirus, she said.

Turkey: Belated anti-coronavirus campaign