Turkey still needs to learn a lot in pandemic fight

Turkey still needs to learn a lot in pandemic fight

Last year these days, Turkey, like the rest of the world, was wondering when the first case of the coronavirus would be discovered and whether a lockdown would be imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

On March 11, the day when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the pandemic, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced the first coronavirus case in Turkey. Since then, it has been a long and difficult year for the entire world and Turkey, with concerns that the pandemic will be with us for some more time.

As of March 9, around 2.8 million Turks were diagnosed with COVID-19, with 29,000 deaths in the past year. Turkey ranks ninth nation in the number of coronavirus cases while it has shown a remarkable performance in keeping death figures low compared to other countries. The good news is that the Turkish health care system has proven itself even in the most difficult stages of the fight against the coronavirus.

The government was criticized by the opposition parties on three issues - the lack of transparency in sharing data and a full picture of the pandemic; the denial of the participation of nongovernmental medical associations in the fight against the pandemic, and the restrictions imposed on the oppositional municipalities in collecting donations to assist needy people.

The past year has shown that Turkey was not exempt from the grave social and economic consequences of the pandemic. While already suffering from currency turbulence, it was difficult to keep the Turkish economy on track in an environment where economic and social life was restricted. The economic figures slightly improved at the end of 2020, giving a more positive prospect for this year.

The start of the vaccination has surely raised hope worldwide. Turkey is acquiring vaccines from multiple producers, mainly from China, and has already vaccinated 7 million people with around 10 million doses. It hopes to get more doses in a bid to protect a good majority of the nation by mid-2021. At the same time, Turkey is also continuing its clinical studies on its vaccine with hopes that it will be ready for use in the coming period.

Despite all these promising developments, the government’s hasty decision to reopen the country based on the performances of the provinces is likely to stir up trouble in the country’s fight against the pandemic.

As known, Turkey introduced a set of nationwide restrictions in mid-November 2020 to curb the spread of the virus as the number of daily new cases hit more than 20,000. That included weekend and night curfews, the closure of all restaurants, cafés and other public spaces, along with schools.

As a result of the restrictions, Turkey registered only 6,287 cases on Feb. 14, encouraging the government to push the button for a gradual normalization of the country under a new plan based on the performances of Turkey’s all 81 provinces.

The plan envisages the division of 81 provinces according to the number of new cases per 100,000 under four categories, low risk, medium risk, high risk and very high risk. Many public health experts have warned the government that it would be risky to reopen the country at this stage as past experiences have shown that the situation is still very fragile and unwanted conditions can arise.

In just 10 days after the restrictions were eased, the number of new cases doubled in the country. In the capital, Ankara, which was in the medium-risk category, is about to move to the high-risk category, while the country’s prominent metropolitan city of Istanbul is advancing to the very high-risk category. The governors of these two cities have already notified citizens if the cases continue to surge, the restrictions will be implemented again. Experts have also raised their concerns, saying that the real impact of this reckless opening is likely to be seen in the coming two weeks.

Unfortunately, this picture, on the first anniversary of the COVID-19, shows that we still have a lot more to learn on how to survive a pandemic effectively and strike a balance between our freedoms and responsibilities toward each other in safeguarding public health.