Virus diaries Turkey: Social distancing to social media
Social distancing to social media sounds like an oxymoron during the coronavirus days, when everybody around the world are asked to stay at home. No doubt, social media makes self-isolation more bearable. This is true for singles living alone, but also for more crowded households.
But in a country where there is a serious problem in terms of people not understanding what they read or hear, the public’s high access to social media as well as the pace of the dissemination of fake news via social media, can have unpleasant consequences. According to a research revealed in 2019 by the Turkish Education Ministry four out of 10 students do not understand what they read. According to some estimates this is two among three when it comes to adults. We are witnessing what this means as COVID-19 pandemic is taking effect in Turkey.
Scientists and officials tried to explain to the public that the elderly were the most vulnerable and that the death toll everywhere in the world was higher for the older age groups. As a result, the elderly were asked to stay at home. When authorities observed that this advice was not being implemented vigorously by the old age groups, a ban was introduced for those 65 and above.
As a result, some young people started to target old people they saw on the streets. Their behavior did not suggest a passionate concern for the elderly, but rather a selfish fear of getting contaminated by them. The elderly were treated as if they were the “super spreaders,” whereas actually it is the young ones who are the super spreaders supposed to stay at home just like the elderly.
An ambulance believed to transport patients suspected of COVID-19 was attacked recently, because the health personnel declined to reveal the identity of the patients. It is anyone’s guess what they would have done had they found out who the patients were. In the meantime, while some people have openly stated when they posted positive, some even among the most educated preferred to hide it.
Similarly, while it is known the corpse of those who died from the virus poses no threat to the rest of the population, two separate cemeteries were identified in Istanbul to bury them. This decision was taken for practical reasons, since the personnel to bury them received special protective outfit as well as training. Yet some in the neighborhoods nearby objected to the choices out of fear of getting contaminated.
Meanwhile, some doctors have become as famous as rock stars, but some among them suffered from fake news as well, since false statements attributed to some doctors advising against for instance the use of “turmeric” to strengthen the immune system, started circulating in the social media. One day last week, sumac, the spice became a trending topic in Turkey, outpacing coronavirus, as a woman claimed it was useful against the disease.
On a personal note, the shortage of tonic water in my local supermarket, led me to the false impression that my neighborhood was fond of gin and tonic, as I thought they were stockpiling, fearing a total curfew. It turns out, people rushed to buy tonic water due to its quinine content, believed to be useful against COVID-19.
On the political level, at a time when there are calls for unity and solidarity, we have witnessed political rivalry to continue nonstop. Pictures of a crowded bus belonging to the Istanbul Municipality started circulating Sunday afternoon. The pictures were taken at 6 a.m. last Sunday, March 29, when almost 80 percent of the locals were at home, from a bus station that has never seen so many people taking the bus at that time, any previous Sundays. Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu believes this is a plot used as a smear campaign against him. He was especially furious to see that some Justice and Development Party (AK Party) officials did not miss the opportunity to spread these photos on social media.
This incident, however, has reminded us of the importance of pluralism as well as the crucial role of local administration.
Take the case, for instance, about the number of death cases due to COVID-19 in Turkey. A lot of people express suspicion about the correctness of the numbers. Indeed, some patients die before they had time to be tested. the cause of death is therefore registered as the main health complication the patient has suffered from, like pneumonia for instance.
Had there been a severe gap between the numbers revealed each night by health minister and the reality, the municipalities which are in the hands of the opposition parties and are in charge of cemeteries would be able to detect that discrepancy by comparing the numbers with the statistics of previous years.
In that sense, they have not yet sounded alarm bells.