COVID-19 has now hit most of the world since its outbreak in December 2019. Governments around the world are trying to contain the virus with measures aimed, in particular, at limiting human contact as much as possible. The main fear is the explosion of critical cases to a level that could overwhelm healthcare systems. While measures seem to be working with varying degrees in each country, the damages they incur to the economy are yet to be measured. In fact, governments worldwide have to tread a fine line between fighting the pandemic effectively while at the same time making sure that their economies will not collapse. This is precisely the dilemma that Turkey faces as well.
The COVID-19 outbreak and the government's response to it are reshaping socio-economic life in Turkey. The government was arguably late in its response to the looming crisis. However, as the number of positive cases and deaths continues to grow at an exponential rate, the government is taking drastic measures, albeit ad hoc. So far, the Turkish government has:
- Introduced online education. Starting from March 16, all schools were closed, followed later by the decision to hold classes online. In addition to recorded lectures broadcast on the state TV station, TRT, teachers are holding their classes on the online meeting app Zoom. Online classes have now begun for undergraduate and graduate students as well. Given that children and youths can be highly contagious despite showing little to no symptoms of the disease, they run the risk of transmitting it to more vulnerable segments of the population, which is why social distancing measures are so crucial.
- Closed bars, gyms, night clubs, shopping malls, and other places of social gathering and postponed court hearings. This step is also vital in minimizing human contact and containing the transmission of the virus.
- Placed pilgrims in quarantine: Turkish citizens returning from Mecca and Medina, in Saudi Arabia, were initially advised to observe a 14-day self-quarantine. However, after the images of people visiting these pilgrims were shared and criticized on social media, the pilgrims were put into quarantine in public student dormitories that were mostly vacant after students returned home to their families.
- Suspended Friday prayers, a widely observed Islamic ritual.
- Imposed measures to allow government employees who are over 60 or with chronic conditions to work from home as they are the most vulnerable group in the face of this pandemic.
- Imposed a curfew for people aged 65 and over and for the chronically sick. Although, by itself, this does not prevent contact as those not under the curfew can still transmit it to their family members at risk, it helps avoid the unnecessary movement of those most at risk. Several municipalities have introduced measures to meet the needs of these age groups, such as buying their groceries and providing regular medications.
- Banned flights to/from 68 countries (including many in Europe): This measure was put in place relatively late. More ominously, Turkey closed its land border with Iran, a country that was severely hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, only in late February. By that time, the number of cases and casualties in Iran were already skyrocketing. As the picture in Turkey is getting grimmer, the government has taken stricter measures on international travel. In fact, starting from March 27 onwards, Turkey’s official carrier Turkish Airlines (THY) will fly only to five destinations: Moscow, New York, Washington, Hong Kong and Ethiopia.
- Launched public awareness campaigns. From public text messages to TV and social announcements, the ministries of health and internal affairs have urged citizens to stay home, practice good hygiene, and call the authorities if they notice symptoms in either themselves or those around them.
- Last but not least, the government unveiled a 100 billion Turkish Lira (approx. $15.4 billion) stimulus package. It aims at easing the burden on the most vulnerable sectors. It includes the postponement of VAT and insurance payments by corporations for six months, the provision of cash to the sectors most at need, support for the banks, and the postponement of credit card and debit payments owed by citizens to public banks. However, most economists saw the package as insufficient.
The public’s initial perception of the government's handling of the crisis was largely positive. However, as time passes, the number of positive cases is exponentially growing, and the mood is changing, increasingly becoming more critical. In particular, criticisms revolve around the delay in halting travel from countries hit hard by the virus, the insufficient preparation in terms of test kits and protective gear for health workers, and the insufficiency of the economic stimulus package. While the number of cases and fatalities are sharply increasing, healthcare providers still need a better supply of protective equipment. Many are comparing the stimulus package and lack of sufficient medical supplies and test kits with the government’s allocation of 110 billion TL (more than the package) for the Istanbul Channel Project, a highly controversial and grandiose project. Moreover, so far, the official number of casualties has been announced daily on Twitter by the minister of health. These announcements don't provide any details about the location, age groups or similar features of the patients. This lack of transparency arouses suspicion and anxiety amongst the general population.
Moreover, until very recently, instead of immediate testing and forced isolation, the government only recommended self-quarantine for those coming from abroad - except for the pilgrims (only after the public outcry) and those with a fever and other symptoms.
Last but not the least, the effectiveness of the government’s measures in containing the coronavirus pandemic in Turkey is yet to be seen. However, what is certain is that these measures will carry a heavy economic bill. Bearing in mind that Turkey is facing the coronavirus pandemic at a time when its economy is already suffering from a weak currency, a high budget deficit, coupled with high inflation, a fragile financial system and a dwindling central bank reserve, the prospective economic toll to come would be daunting for any government. Likewise, given the important share of the Turkish economy coming from the tourism sector (in 2019, Turkey was the sixth most visited country in the world), Turkey’s economic woes, resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, are only set to increase as we move forward into summer, unless the crisis is contained in the near future. Indeed, the mounting economic cost is bound to carry a political cost for the government. Hence, the government is facing the uphill battle of saving both lives and the economy at the same time. At this stage, this might seem to be “mission impossible”, but in any scenario, the government will face blowbacks from this sprawling crisis.