Turkey needs central strategy but local tactics against virus
Turks living in other cities get frustrated from time to time by the overwhelming dominance of Istanbul-centric news in the national media. When Turkey’s biggest city comes to a standstill due to heavy snowfall, for instance, the rest of the country can’t find anything on national television other than non-stop broadcasting about Istanbul’s crisis.
But despite their occasional frustrations, they will continue to watch what happens in Istanbul because most of them have a piece of them in that city – a son at university, a daughter working in an office, a relative, a friend. With its 16 million inhabitants from all corners of the country, Istanbul represents Turkey.
And that’s why Istanbul is sharing the same fate as New York in facing the challenge of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Not only does it have the highest population, but also the highest population density. In other words, one square kilometer in Istanbul is home to an average of 17,000 people, according to research conducted by Professor Onur Başer.
It is therefore no coincidence that the city not only caught the virus the earliest but became the super spreader due to the fact that it is an international and a national hub in terms of travel.
The fight against COVID-19 is being led by the capital Ankara. No doubt, the challenge of a fast-spreading outbreak requires a centralized approach. You need consistency if you want to avoid any leakage. However, you also need a local approach – not just for different cities, but even for different neighborhoods within cities, since each might have different needs or urgencies.
The Health Ministry took the right step and established a science committee for COVID-19 on Jan. 10, a month before the first official case was diagnosed in Turkey. But the decision for each city to set up their own pandemic committee was taken at a very later stage, on March 28. Restrictions on entries and exits to Turkey’s biggest 30 cities were introduced on April 3. Nearly a dozen of these cities municipalities are run by the opposition.
These municipalities did not wait for instructions from the central administration to take their own measures.
Ankara municipality, led by Masur Yavaş, seems to have taken the lead in terms of taking measures to impose social distancing while addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged.
He provided shelter and food to those collecting waste for recycling from the city’s bins. He provided food and provided cash assistance to more than 750 people who were making their living by selling simit (Turkish bagels) on the streets.
And it’s not just Ankara, Istanbul and İzmir that set up their own crisis centers and started to disinfect public spaces and public transport, but other municipalities in the hands of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) as well.
Because of the calls to stay home, municipalities have seen drastic drops in their income. But when they started to organize a fundraising campaign, they were stopped by the Interior Ministry, which blocked their bank accounts. The minister claimed organizing a fundraising campaign without the consent of the ministry amounted to the formation of a “separate state within a state.” Supporting this argument, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched a countrywide fundraising campaign. This, however, looked like an idea that was inspired from the opposition.
Thanks to its statistical office, Istanbul municipality provided input as to what degree self-isolation was being implemented by locals in the city. The municipality revealed that more than 80,000 locals age 65 and above used public transport on March 17 despite calls from the Health Ministry for the elderly to stay at home. The curfew for that age group was introduced on March 21. As soon as this decision was taken, the municipality announced that people in that age group would no longer be able to use their travel cards on public transport.
The Health Ministry did not reveal the city breakdown on COVID-19 cases until April 2, when the country found out that 60 percent of the cases were seen in Istanbul. Long before that, however, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu rang the alarm bells for the city.
İmamoğlu set up his own science committee of experts, and on March 27, he announced that three places were designated as field hospitals and informed the Health Ministry about the preparations. The same day he implied the need for a countrywide lockdown, and on March 31, he called for a curfew in Istanbul. Last Friday, on April 3, the science committee in Ankara made wearing masks in public spaces, including public transport, obligatory.
(On a personal note; two weeks ago there were no masks left in the relatively busy commercial center of Ortaköy, the neighborhood where I live in Istanbul. Following the decision, the only mask I could find cost me 35 liras.) The municipalities were not informed beforehand about that decision even though they were still asked to implement it. How are they to implement a decision if they come across a local in Istanbul who wants to take public transport but does not have 35 liras to buy a mask?
Still, the next day the municipality announced it would distribute 100,000 masks free of change. It took two days for the central administration, to declare on March 5, that it would also distribute masks free of charge. The list can go on and on. Actually just one photograph explains it all: The Turkish president organized a videoconference on April 2 with mayors across the country. The mayors of Turkey’s 11 biggest cities were absent. Interestingly, exactly one year ago today, Turkey was debating the results of the municipal elections in Istanbul.