Erdogan under pressure as Turkey’s coronavirus toll mounts

Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces increasing pressure to impose a nationwide lockdown as Turkey battles against one of the fastest growing coronavirus outbreaks in the world.

Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul and one of the country’s main opposition politicians, urged the Turkish president to impose drastic restrictions in addition to the existing ones, warning of the number of people still on the move in the city of 15.5 million inhabitants.

“I don’t even want to think, God help us, how this pandemic could spread because of these people who are still outside,” he told Fox News on Monday.

The mayor of Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey, echoed the call, saying: “In order to avoid a situation like in Italy or Spain. . . we need to limit the rate of spread of the virus. ”

The Turkish Medical Association has also insisted that the government order people to stay at home.

But in a speech to the nation on Monday evening, Erdogan stressed that the economy must continue to operate, saying: “Turkey is a country where production must continue and the cogs must continue to turn in all the circumstances and all the conditions. ”

The number of coronavirus cases in Turkey increased rapidly in the three weeks following confirmation of the first, exceeding 10,800 on Monday. The number is higher than what China, Italy or Spain declared at the same stage of their outbreaks: 13 days since the 100th case. About 168 people died.

Turkey suffered from “a very rapid increase in the number of people, with some deaths very early in the epidemic curve,” said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the British University of East Anglia.

But the pandemic has overturned the usual political dynamic in Turkey, where Erdogan has gained unprecedented power in recent years.

The president is frequently attacked by opposition groups for being too brutal. During the coronavirus epidemic, Ankara criticized investigating over 300 people for “provocative” social media posts regarding the disease, with 64 arrests. But when it comes to imposing drastic measures on the population of 83 million, Mr. Erdogan is accused of being too laissez-faire.

The government closed schools and universities and imposed strict restrictions on long distance travel and a ban on leaving home for people over 65. However, the president was reluctant to impose a total lockout nationwide, urging everyone to impose their own “voluntary quarantine”.

Although the tourism industry and most of the automotive sector have closed, work is continuing in some factories and construction sites. In Istanbul last week, more than 1.2 million people a day were still using public transport, according to city statistics.

“It’s strange for a state like the Turkish state, which is an authoritarian state,” said Sinem Adar, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “The Turkish state has not hesitated to declare a state of emergency in the past.”

Editor’s note

Erdogan under pressure as Turkey’s coronavirus toll mounts 1

The Financial Times makes the coverage of major coronaviruses free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest news here.

Turkish media have suggested that there are tensions within the government between those who want tougher measures and those worried about the damage that a total shutdown would cause to the recovering $ 750 billion economy still from the 2018 monetary crisis.

Economists are already forecasting a sharp contraction in the second quarter of 2020, jeopardizing Erdogan’s target of 5% growth in gross domestic product this year.

But the effort to keep the economy running has created a conflict between companies and their staff.

The hashtag “Staying at home is easy to say” spread on Twitter as some workers complained of being forced to choose between their health and their livelihood.

Economists and business associations have asked Turkey to follow other countries by providing mass cash transfers and job protection programs to allow for a tougher shutdown while protecting the economy.

About 19,000 businesses have already applied on behalf of 420,000 workers for a salary support program as part of a $ 15 billion economic assistance package announced earlier this month.

But Tusiad, Turkey’s largest industry association, wants the government to go further, citing the large number of people who are not eligible because they are not part of the formal workforce. “We have to think about a compensation mechanism for people in this group who also lose their income,” said Simone Kaslowski, president of Tusiad, to the Turkish business newspaper Dunya.

Turkey has certain factors in its favor in the fight against the pandemic, notably a young population and great improvements in the health system during the 17 years spent at the head of Mr. Erdogan.

But, as in Italy, families are very close and intergenerational households are common, which risks spreading the virus from children to their grandparents.

As authorities increased testing over the past week to over 11,000 on Monday, health experts fear it may have happened too late.

Emrah Altindis, an assistant professor of biology at Boston College, said there are two proven ways to limit the size of a coronavirus epidemic: the South Korean model of mass testing and isolation of identified cases, or a Strict Chinese style locking of entire regions.

“Unlike South Korea, we haven’t done the testing. And unlike China, we haven’t quarantined cities,” he said. “Turkey doesn’t do what ‘she must do. “

Additional report by Funja Guler in Ankara

Leave a Comment