Turkey’s Handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic Proves Controversial

Published on 30 May 2021 at 14:42

The handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Turkey by the Turkish Government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has proved controversial. Having first come to power in 2003 as prime minister following the formation of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan’s grip on power has continued to tighten in recent years. Whilst it appeared to have controlled the pandemic in its early stages, the mishandling of the pandemic has been heavily criticised in Turkey, as 2020 continued and waves of the pandemic continued and worsened across the world.


For example, according to The Guardian, in May 2020, Erdogan ‘resisted calls to order people to stop going to work and stay at home, insisting the ‘wheels of the economy must keep turning’. This was only a snapshot of the attitude of the Government of Erdogan to a deadly pandemic, as it clearly sought to prioritise the needs of the economy over the public health of the people in Turkey.


Further according to The Guardian, ‘in February 2020, Turkey observed the growing crisis next door in Iran and decided to close the border; contact-tracing teams experienced in dealing with Turkey’s endemic tuberculosis problem were activated the next month, and in April evening and weekend curfews were introduced in an effort to balance stopping the movement of people while preserving an already struggling economy’. The value of the Turkish currency, the Turkish Lira has consistently decreased in the wrong direction, compared to the Euro currency. Meanwhile, Erdogan has reshuffled the Central Bank of Turkey on numerous occasions already in 2021.


According to Bloomberg, the latest appointment of a new deputy governor, ‘comes two months after Erdogan fired Naci Agbal, the bank’s third governor in less than two years, sending Turkish markets into a nosedive’. Meanwhile, ‘public support for Erdogan’s ruling AK Party meanwhile hit a record low last month, according to prominent pollsters, amid disenchantment with the government’s handling of the economy’.


The Guardian elaborated further by saying that after restrictions that began in April, ‘after three months of movement restrictions, desperate not to damage the economy further, the government declared Turkey was ready to enter a process of ‘normalisation’ from 1 June… Over the summer, mass gatherings slowly picked up again – most notably the gathering of crowds at the Hagia Sophia…


Colder autumn temperatures also contributed to a sharp rise in cases… But in October, doctors’ fears were confirmed when the government admitted to massively underreporting official case numbers, only giving the number of ‘symptomatic’ cases in its daily updates… Yet the ensuing fury from healthcare workers and opposition campaigners was met with criticism by Erdogan’s coalition partner, Devlet Bahceli, who accused doctors of ‘treason’ and said the Turkish Medical Association should be shut down… The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) continued to hold indoor rallies, in breach of its own rules’.


This was a clear example of one rule for the elite and another rule for the rest. Further, the Guardian said that ‘the government finally implemented a second period of travel restrictions over the winter, but the rules were lifted too early, and by March this year Turkey was hit by an inevitable third wave… As most of Europe prepared to start easing coronavirus rules this spring, Turkey’s attempts at half-truths and half-measures finally ran out of steam…


The country was forced to finally implement a total lockdown during the month of Ramadan… But the reason doctors are saying it probably has not worked is the same reason Turkey was loath to implement a ‘full’ lockdown in the first place: the government was unable to afford to give small businesses financial assistance, so many people kept working’. Unlike the supports that businesses can avail of in Ireland, such as the CRSS scheme, small businesses in Turkey do not enjoy these same privileges.


The Guardian further explained that ‘further lockdowns are not politically inexpedient if the AKP wants to hang on to its working-class base: after almost two decades in power, support for the party has steadily begun to seep away since 2018’s lira crash… There has been widespread anger, too, at the ‘two tier’ nature of the lockdown, in which foreign tourists were encouraged to visit and enjoy the country’s site while Turks were not allowed to leave home without facing steep fines…


Even the early successes of Turkey’s vaccination programme have been overshadowed by major stumbles such as delays in shipments and health minister Fahrettin Koca’s turnaround comments on the use of certain vaccines’. In summary, the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been shambolic by the Turkish government. Despite a relatively solid vaccination rollout programme, on balance, its management of the pandemic has been poor. Because it was unable to provide support to small businesses financially, it kept the economy open. However, at the same time, it ignored public health advice as Erdogan’s ruling party, the AKP, held indoor events which were against its own public health restrictions, and despite the implementation of curfews, the virus has not been contained in Turkey.


As Turkey is now in tourist season, evidence is already emerging of a ‘two tier’ society, as reported by The Guardian. As foreign tourists have been encouraged to come and visit Turkey, the ordinary members of the public in Turkey have to stay at home. This, alongside, the fact that since the 2018 Lira crash, the Turkish economy has slowly worsened and the value of the Lira has consistently worsened.


The next scheduled general election is in 2023, which represents two decades since Erdogan first came to power as prime minister. It is likely to be his most challenging election in power. Whether he is able to remain in power towards the end of the 2020s, it remains to be seen. He is likely to face opponent from the opposition party, the CHP, and current Istanbul mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, in these next scheduled elections.

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