Turkey should not rush to ease COVID-19 measures
Turkey will soon mark the first anniversary of the pandemic as the first COVID-19 case was spotted on March 11 last year, which was followed by strict nationwide restrictions. Turkey started to observe its second peak in the fall of 2020 which pushed the government to re-impose weekend curfews and night curfews as well as the abandonment of face-to-face education. More importantly, restaurants, cafés and other similar public places have also been shut down since mid-November 2020.
As a result of these restrictions, Turkey was able to reduce the daily new coronavirus cases from above 30,000 to 6,000-7,000 in less than two months. Besides, the vaccination began in mid-January 2021 and more than 6 million Turks have already been jabbed the Chinese vaccine. This picture has provided an opportunity for the government to consider a plan for a gradual reopening based on the performances of 81 provinces, which will be classified under four groups.
It was reported that Turkey’s 81 provinces will be categorized as low, medium, high and very high risk based on infection rates and the vaccination process as well as other criteria. Provinces with fewer than 10 virus cases per 100,000 people will be considered low-risk areas whereas provinces with between 11 to 35 infections per 100,000 people will fall under the medium-risk category and they will be the first ones to return to normalcy.
As was stated by Health Minister Fahrettin Koca late Feb. 25, the cabinet will gather under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to discuss the current state in the fight against the pandemic and the methodology as to how to normalize life. Koca said the Science Board has prepared an advisory plan for the government but the final decision will be made at the cabinet meeting.
Although things seem to go on the right track in terms of tackling COVID-19, making haste in removing the restrictions should not be the first option. There are three key reasons why Turkey should show more patience.
First, the last 10 days have observed a gradual increase in the number of new coronavirus cases. On Feb. 14, Turkey recorded 6,287 cases, but the figure rose to 9,572 on Feb. 25, displaying an around 50 percent surge and making sure that the contagious disease can hit in the case of relaxing the restrictions. Koca explained that the new variants of the virus are one of the reasons behind the increase as they are spreading much quicker.
Second, although the vaccination campaign has been launched and is proceeding successfully, only less than 10 percent of the 83 million, plus 5 million refugees, could be vaccinated. Turkey needs a long way and a few months more to benefit from vaccine protection.
Third, the normalization plan based on the performance of the provinces is still vague and open to manipulation. Many public health experts welcome the idea of the normalization on the performance of the provinces, but they urge that a more detailed plan and algorithm should be designed to this end.
Another problem concerning the province-based normalization is that no assurances can be given that a province classified as low or medium-risk can easily turn to a high-risk one within just a few weeks due to the people’s complacency.
In the meantime, Education Minister Ziya Selçuk has been very active and diligent in the reopening of the schools. On Monday, certain classes will return to face-to-face education and he will surely become very frustrated if schools will have to be closed once again in the event of a surge in the numbers again.
The government will surely make a substantial assessment on all these aspects when they meet on March 1.