OROn a seething and hot day in Istanbul last July, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in front of the Hagia Sophia to celebrate President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s declaration that the historic building that the secular founders of the modern state had turned into a museum would become a museum. back in mosque.
The decision was widely perceived outside the country as a turning point in Turkey’s relationship with the West. In hindsight, the crowds in Sultanahmet Square represented another cultural shift: a change in the way Turkey’s government dealt with the coronavirus pandemic after months of closed borders and weekend and night curfews.
The Turks are once again enjoying a bit of normalcy after the lifting of a “complete” three-week blockade, the country’s first. Turkey’s Health Ministry says the number of coronavirus infections has dropped by 72% after record highs of more than 60,000 new cases per day in April.
The success rate has been used as an argument that the country is prepared for the crucial summer tourism season. However, Turkey still has the fifth highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world and doctors said the officially reported drop in new cases is statistically impossible, instead showing a large reduction in testing.
Turkey’s official death toll from Covid-19 is 45,186. However, the analysis of municipal death statistics shared with The Guardian by Fort Yaman, a computer scientist affiliated with the Turkish Medical Association’s pandemic working group, shows more than 140,000 excess deaths across the country compared to the average of the previous three years, leaving 68% of the total number of deaths in excess unaccounted for.
The Turkish health ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Turkey was initially praised by the World Health Organization at the start of the pandemic for taking swift and effective action, but its response has plunged into a quagmire of changes of direction, omissions, errors and half measures They have apparently prioritized political and economic issues at the expense of public health.
“At the beginning of the pandemic there was a genuine effort to mitigate the risk, but since then, politics got in the way,” said Dr. Çağhan Kızıl, another member of the Turkish Medical Association’s pandemic working group.
“The Turkish government has analyzed the available scientific advice and decided to use it as a cover to suit its own agenda. It’s a gamble: Turkey’s population leans toward the young, so most will probably be fine. Managing the crisis now is about making people think the pandemic is over, rather than actually fixing it. “
The early days of the Covid-19 outbreak were a very different story. In February 2020, Turkey observed the growing crisis next door in Iran and decided to close the border; Contact tracing teams with experience in treating Turkey’s endemic tuberculosis problem were activated the following month, and evening and weekend curfews were introduced in April in an effort to balance the detention of the movement of people and preserve an already existing state. struggling economy.
However, problems with the focus soon became apparent. Relatively low case numbers, discrepancies in the way physicians were instructed to record deaths, and insistence on the use of the clinically ineffective antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine treating coronavirus patients generated early warning signs for the healthcare community.
After three months of movement restrictions, desperate not to damage the economy further, the government declared that Turkey was ready to enter a “normalization” process as of June 1. During the summer, the mass gatherings slowly resumed, most notably the gathering of crowds in Hagia Sophia.
Colder fall temperatures also contributed to a sharp increase in cases. But in October, doctors’ fears were confirmed when the government admitted that it did not massively report the number of official cases, only giving the number of “symptomatic” cases in its daily updates.
However, the resulting anger from health workers and opposition activists was met with criticism by Erdogan’s coalition partner Devlet Bahçeli, who accused the doctors of “treason” and said that the Turkish Medical Association it should be closed. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) continued to hold indoor rallies, in violation of its own rules.
The government eventually implemented a second period of travel restrictions during the winter, but the rules were lifted too early, and in March this year Turkey was hit by an inevitable third wave.
As most of Europe prepared to begin loosening the coronavirus rules this spring, Turkey’s attempts at half-truths and half-measures finally dried up. The country was eventually forced to implement a total lock during the month of Ramadan.
But the reason doctors say it probably didn’t work is the same reason Turkey was reluctant to implement a “total” lockdown in the first place: the government could not afford to provide financial assistance to small businesses, so what many people kept working on.
“There is no financial aid, or almost none. Even the special loan I got to pay the rent has a high interest rate, ”said Halil Arslan, who works at a flower shop in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu neighborhood.
“The workshop has been here for 15 years but the work has dropped by 80%. We’re just holding on. “
Other blockades are not politically inconvenient if the AKP wants to cling to its working-class base: After nearly two decades in power, support for the party has steadily started to fade since the collapse of the lira in 2018.
“We were already dealing with the increase in poverty before the pandemic. Since closing, we have added a large number of ‘working poor’ to the overall numbers. We are doing everything we can to help one in four households in the city now, ”said Esra Huri Bulduk, who runs social services programming in the megacity of Istanbul.
There has also been widespread anger over the “two-tiered” nature of the shutdown, in which foreign tourists were encouraged to visit and enjoy the country’s sites, while Turks were not allowed to leave home without confrontation. high fines.
Even the early successes of Turkey’s vaccination program have been overshadowed by major setbacks, such as delays in shipments and changing comments from Health Minister Fahrettin Koca about the use of certain vaccines.
“Saying that some vaccines are not safe to use and then changing your mind and telling people to inject the Sputnik 5 or mRNA vaccines anyway erodes confidence and increases doubt about vaccines,” Kızıl said.
“Science is about uncertainty – that’s part of why it’s amazing. But the Turkish government seems to have all the answers, even if they don’t add up… We are not defeating the virus. We are playing political games. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism