Turkey’s Struggle with the Coronavirus

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak’s essay on the Corona pandemic in Turkey show how the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in Turkey has attempted to exploit the crisis to shore-up its domestic political support. This article is part of "The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis".

Social distance warning sign in Turkey
Social distance warning sign in Turkey, June 2020.
Maurice Flesier from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Due to its unique geography and its increasing role as a hub for the world’s commercial air traf­fic, inevitably, Turkey succumbed to the coro­navirus pandemic. Given the fact that last year alone Istanbul’s two airports, Sabiha Gökçen and Istanbul Grand Airport (IGA), hosted 90.4 million passengers in aggregate, the coronavirus’ arrival was expected.

However, unlike its neighbors Iran and Greece, which officially reported their first infections in February, Turkey’s first cases of the virus were officially reported on March 11. In early April, rumors swirled on social media that Turkey had adopted the downplaying of the number of cas­es in order to preserve its fragile economy from the effects of the pandemic. Even established me­dia channels like CNN Türk, which typically avoid challenging the official government narrative, began to question - indirectly - Turkey’s immuni­ty from the disease by publishing a map showing all of Turkey’s neighbors (apart from Syria, whose northern border is under Turkish occupation) as corona infected, while Turkey was portrayed as immune from the coronavirus.

Certainly the growing critics began to threaten the government’s credibility at home and abroad. In light of criticism, Turkey’s Health Minister Fahret­tin Koca chose to make gradual announcements to prepare of the public for the pandemic.

On March 17, Koca announced the first confirmed death of a 89 year-old Turkish national who was infected by his employee who returned from Chi­na.

In the midst of uncertainty, conspiracies took root and began to spread fear in Turkish society. This phenomenon reached its peak when in Yeni Şa­fak İbrahim Karagül - who is considered as one of the closest journalists to the president - argued that the coronavirus was produced in a laboratory to raise a new superior race and to destroy the economies of the adversaries of the West, mean­ing China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Inevitably this complex picture triggered xenophobia. The social media discourse has revealed the anti-Chinese, anti-Syrian, and even antisemitic sentiments in Turkey. While the Chinese and the Syrians were portrayed as usual suspects for infecting Turkish nationals, the Jews were branded as the rich own­ers of the medicine companies who seek to profit from this pandemic worldwide by selling the their hidden “unreleased vaccine.”

Public hysteria grew even further when Anka­ra University’s İbni Sina (Avicenna) Hospital’s Dr. Güle Çınar’s briefing to healthcare staff was leaked to the public. In a short video, Dr. Çınar claimed that the number of confirmed cases in Turkey had reached thousands and not hundreds as was reported by the government. She went on to ex­press her hope that Turkey would not become like Italy and underlined the deteriorating situation in Istanbul, Ankara, Kayseri, and Van - which is locat­ed at the Turkish-Iranian border that was closed in February 23. Dr. Çınar’s briefing ended with a serious accusation that the government was not taking the necessary health measures to deal with Turkish pilgrims who were returning from the umrah pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. The video resulted in a public outcry that called into ques­tion the government’s Corona reporting. The gov­ernment forced Dr. Çınar to apologize for her viral video, but as a result, the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) took the unprecedent­ed step of closing all of the mosques, including the Friday prayers on March 16. In mid-March, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s week-long me­dia silence fueled concern that the government was concealing the extent of the damage from the public.

On March 18, Erdoğan finally broke his silence and urged the Turkish people to obey the social distancing instructions, to pray, and to exercise patience. Erdoğan’s excessive optimism cou­pled with a lack of binding measures against the pandemic created public indifference. In order to preserve economic stability, Erdoğan allowed the public to go to work. This put the populations of Turkey’s large urban centers at risk. In Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir people continued to commute to work using crowded public transportation. Moreover, the majority of the public continued to go to the parks and the beach. In mid-March, Tur­key began to gradually implement restrictions. On March 12, schools were closed; on March 19, the Turkish football Super League was shut down; and, on March 22, restaurants and cafes reduced activity to take-away customers, which collective­ly had the biggest impact on daily life in Turkey.

In the wake of the public support, the government began to take further measures. For instance Turkish Airlines suspended all of its international flights until May 28. A similar measure was also adopted domestically when the Ministry of Interi­or decided to subject all inter-city transportation to special permits. Inevitably these measures ac­celerated the deterioration of the economy. The public expected a government aid package to off­set some of their losses, similar to practices that were implemented in other countries like Ger­many. However these hopes were dashed when President Erdoğan asked the public to donate money for the needy in the framework of a new public campaign, called “We are self-sufficient, my Turkey” (Biz Bize Yeteriz Türkiyem). Erdoğan donated 7 month’s of his presidential salary, and asked Turkish notables to follow him. By April 13, the initiative had raised approximately $240 mil­lion.

This public campaign was interpreted as the gov­ernment’s inability to raise capital in the Turkish market. This perception was further reinforced when President Erdoğan reminded the public of the national tax (Tekalif-i Milliye) measure during the Turkish War of Independence that provided the state with the power to confiscate the money and property of its citizens. Many believe Turkey will ultimately turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for aid. As of April 16, the Turkish ad­ministration declared that the government had no intention of borrowing from the IMF, which triggered another wave of currency devaluation, leading to an exchange rate of 7.20 (as of May 7) Turkish Lira to the dollar, the sharpest devaluation since the Pasteur Brunson crisis between Turkey and the U.S. in 2018.

The government’s credibility suffered another blow when the public realized that the ratio be­tween the infected and deaths remained equal each and every day based on the Health Minis­try’s statistics. Accordingly, since April 4, the ra­tio between the number of deaths and confirmed infection rates was fixed to 0.021%. Since this rate had to fluctuate, the constant, unchanging value paved the way for growing skepticism and a crisis of confidence regarding government transparen­cy and accountability.

A parliamentary pardon for prison inmates in an effort to lower the population density in prisons further damaged the public’s confidence in the government. While those imprisoned for terror­ism, sexual assault, violence against women, and commercial crimes were excluded from the scope of the pardon, journalists and other imprisoned political inmates, such as the philanthropist and human rights activist Osman Kavala - who is ac­cused of orchestrating the Gezi Park protests - were also excluded from the pardon. Thanks to “coronavirus pardon,” 90 thousand inmates in­cluding a top ultra-nationalist mafia boss Alaattin Çakıcı whose name was mentioned previously in prison pardon bills by the Nationalist Movement Party, were set free from the prison.

Turkey also attempted to capitalize on the crisis to improve its foreign relations. It launched medi­cal aid shipments to the United Kingdom and to European Union countries such as Italy and Spain, attempting to improve its deteriorating relations with the West. Turkey’s multilateral relations with the European countries had hit to an un­precedented low when Turkey opened its border with Greece in February, sending refugees across the border ostensibly to threaten Europe. Greece used force to prevent the refugees from crossing the border, stranding them in the buffer zone be­tween Greece and Turkey. When the coronavirus crisis emerged, Turkey chose not to escalate the situation further and removed the refugees from the border to repatriation centers in Malatya, Ko­caeli, Kırklareli and Osmaniye provinces.

Turkey, like much of the world, is struggling to contain the coronavirus, while at the same time searching for a way to rescue the country’s very fragile economy. Unless an economic miracle takes place, or Qatari money flows into the Turk­ish markets as in the previous economic crises, the coronavirus may pave the way for social change if there is a rash of personal bankrupt­cies and mass protests. In order to prevent the ongoing economic deterioration, the government appears to be minimizing its transparency and ac­countability. While these measures may help the government control public unrest in the short-term, it will also deter the flow of foreign invest­ment from the West into the Turkish market. Tur­key’s “coronavirus diplomatic humanitarian aid campaign” reflects decision makers’ main strate­gy. First and foremost, they want to demonstrate power at home. By sending humanitarian aid to the wealthy European countries, Ankara seeks to create the impression to its domestic constituen­cy that the situation in the West is worse than Tur­key. A second objective appears to be improving relations with the Western countries that may be soon asked to rescue the Turkish economy and to strengthen Turkish diplomatic position in Syr­ia vis-a-vis Russia in the aftermath of the Corona crisis.

This article is part of The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis.

For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file, here.