Turkey’s COVID-19 fight: National interest or public health?

Turkey’s COVID-19 fight: National interest or public health?

Turkey’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic has observed a new milestone after it announced that the daily figures released by the Health Ministry only reflect the number of COVID-19 patients and not asymptomatic positive cases.

To make it precise, for example, as revealed by the ministry on Oct. 3, Turkey recorded 1,502 COVID-19 patients across the country and 103,219 PCR testing. Data disseminated by the ministry didn’t inform about how many new people were infected with the virus, causing an obscure picture of the current pace of the spread of the pandemic in the country.

This decision to impose a certain level of a blackout on a public health matter has resurfaced the negative consequences of the politicization of the COVID-19 struggle. It can be analyzed under four titles:

International credibility: With no easy and quick solution to the COVID-19 in sight, the international dimension of the pandemic will continue to be important for various reasons. Credibility and accuracy in reporting the pandemic, therefore, come into prominence for the international community.

That’s why Turkey should take a call by the World Health Organization (WHO) to harmonize data collection and report the cases in line with the globally accepted guidelines very seriously. The WHO defines confirmed cases as “a person with laboratory confirmation of COVID-19 infection, irrespective of clinical signs and symptoms.”

It was not a coincidence to hear that the U.K. removed Turkey from its quarantine-free list as British and Scottish authorities complained about the Turkish government’s underreporting of the cases. Unfortunately, this tarnished credibility may lead to further restrictions on Turkey.

Information flow/public health: One of the key pillars of national efforts in a fight against a pandemic is to keep the information flow open in an unbiased and transparent way. As experts reiterate, avoiding a full and accurate picture of the spread of the virus may weaken people’s conscience in following even the most basic measures, like social distancing and hygiene.

In a country with 83 million - and plus five million migrants - reporting of only 1,500 patients a day can hardly mobilize the people. In the same way, it can also create despair and disappointment among the health personnel, doctors and experts who see the real picture in the field. Some members of the Science Board have told the Turkish media that they were not informed about the methodological change in reporting the cases and expressed their discomfort with it.

National interest: An important indication of the politicization of the pandemic fight is to see the use of the concept of “national interest.” Defending Turkey’s unique way of reporting the coronavirus, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said: “The state is protecting not only public health but also national interests because the outbreak impacts the whole life. The criticism leveled by those who are not accountable is no different than trying to find a stain by focusing with a lens on a single spot in a whole picture.”

The main problem in this characterization is the vagueness of national interest. In today’s world, almost all governmental actions and decisions are tried to be justified by national interests no matter what the subject is.

In fact, keeping public health is the first and foremost national interest and comes before any other governmental considerations on tourism or economy.

Efficiency in measures: Along with the aforementioned aspects, a holistic approach in the imposition of safeguards plays is proven to be of vital importance in the pandemic fight. With the bounce-back of COVID-19, Turkey has reintroduced some of the restrictions that were lifted at the beginning of the summer.

A very recent one concerns a two-month-long prohibition of the meetings to be organized by the civil society and professional chambers. This created controversy because the political parties are allegedly exempted from this ban, and both the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) will have to complete the conventions in 81 provinces before holding a general convention. Because of the ban, for example, the bar associations in 81 provinces will have to delay the scheduled elections.

Turkey should move quickly to reverse this picture to the advantage of the necessities of public health as COVID-19 requires a national struggle accompanied by accurate and transparent reporting, well-integrated but non-politicized measures.