Turkey Amidst Crisis: What’s New?

[Defne Sökmen] Sunday, May 24, 2020

Where Were We When The Clock Struck Midnight?

Two and a half months after the first case of Covid-19 reported in Turkey (11 March 2020, relatively late considering its neighbours on both sides were already recording Covid-19 related deaths), and as the month of fasting for Ramadan comes to an end with the holiday today, we are more confused than ever about what to think about life in Turkey. As was said elsewhere, every country was at a different point when the chaos and crisis of this pandemic came. Turkey’s economy was already in a tough spot, with unemployment at a worrying 13.4%, speculative currency attacks and a depreciating lira, combined with repeated attempts at slashing interest rates to revive economic activity.

The news headlines of March 10th 2020, one day before the first reported case of infection in Turkey, read as the All-time Classics list of every policy manoeuvre identified with the current government. There were news stories on the rights of Protestant Churches, on whether the USA will sell Turkey ‘Patriot’ missiles, on the mistreatment of women who attended the Women’s Day gatherings (on March 8th), and on the circumstances around the arrest and re-charging of Osman Kavala shortly after his release from detention following his acquittal from charges of attempting the coup on July 15, 2016. All these stories were considered usual, expected, and precedented in earlier news cycles.

Accordingly, when Covid-19 made its way into Turkey, it arrived in a country of already existing chaos and fear. We all heard, made and laughed at distasteful jokes about all of us already being infected with Covid-19, or that even the virus was afraid of our turmoil, and that it could actually help us in the current situation by providing an easy excuse to our mess. While we swam in apocalyptic scenarios, the reality, however, continued to unravel in an unexpected way. Since the beginning, Turkey’s response to the pandemic has been led by two actors working in coordination – the Minister of Health, Fahrettin Koca, who is an experienced, acclaimed paediatrician, and the Science Task Board, created by the Ministry of Health to consult on Covid-19. While clearly maintaining close connection and good relations with the President, these actors managed to devise an independent action plan that is (relatively) transparent, scientific, and systematic – an interesting departure from the usual, preferred model of government action that is top-down.

One should note that even with the waves of privatization of the 2000s, Turkey’s health system is a centralized, predominantly public system – funded by the government through taxation and premiums, in partnership with a social security regime. Social reforms and election promises always include improvements to the public provision of health services and there is universal health insurance coverage.

Within the first two weeks, all private hospitals were designated as pandemic hospitals, obliged to take care of anyone admitted to their facilities with COVID-like symptoms free of charge. Covid-19 wards equipped with proper personnel and physical infrastructure were added to all public hospitals, and a public-private mutual project to manufacture more ventilators was implemented right away. Since then, from our worst days with around 4800 new cases and 125 deaths per day mid-April, to the “better” days of around 1000 new cases and 30 deaths per day since mid-May, there has been an overall trust in medical services and a feeling of protection.

Measures, Non-measures, Measure-takers

The feeling of protection does, however, not extend to many other fields of policy. When developing measures, the government was quick to issue curfew orders for all citizens over the age of 65, and under the age of 20 (a quickly issued amendment excluded employed young people from the scope of the curfew). All schools were shut down after the first case of infection, and students on all levels were assigned online classes developed by the Ministry of Education. These measures were represented as aiming to protect the most vulnerable parts of the population, without having to announce a country-wide curfew. Oddly enough, since April 11th, there have been individually announced curfews in the largest 31 cities on the weekends and national holidays which are lifted during weekdays. We are currently under the Ramadan curfew that lasts four days from Saturday until Tuesday the 26th of May. Accordingly, Turkey’s Covid-19 curfew policy displays that the health of the Turkish population is the priority, but only after the economy. It may be that the Turkish government found the golden formula of herd immunity vs. containment that Boris Johnson (who is one-fourth Turkish, go figure) couldn’t patiently plan out: Keep some people in their houses all the time while making workers work.

Private businesses are encouraged to switch to the work-from-home format, without motivation or any enforcement. Even though the Science Task Board has, on many occasions advised against it, many private entities have continued their operations. An example so characteristic of everything about Turkey is the case of the Turkish Football Federation. Football being the most-watched sport and a true, deep love of almost everyone in Turkey, both clubs and other relevant institutions have great power, authority, capital and influence over the political life of the country. When Covid-19 measures were initially taken mid-March, upon the instructions of the Science Task Board, the President of the Turkish Football Federation (and a construction and real estate mogul), announced the suspension of the leagues. Just six weeks later, he unilaterally, and against the current instructions of the Board, announced the continuation of the leagues, starting in June, despite reports of recorded Covid-19 cases in most of the major clubs, and foreign players being in their native countries. (As authorities are giving serious advice not to play too close to other players and looking the other way as a last resort, it is difficult not to notice how capital tackles the power away from the government to its liking, just as before.)

From the scope of measures in response to the pandemic, to the catalogue of ways in which the executive used this time of unprecedented emergency include:

  1. President Erdogan himself asked the people of Turkey directly for donations to tackle poverty and hunger during the crises (imagined as the main relief fund, that significantly complements a public fund) – he has donated the sum of his seven month salary,
  2. When local municipalities tried to ask for donations to cover water and electricity bills of the people who cannot meet their expenses, the Ministry of Interior issued a circular that bans donations to local authorities,
  3. Prison inmates who are serving terror-related sentences were excluded from the Prison Release Bill that aimed to stop the spread of the virus in prisons – for reference, of the 300,000 prisoners in Turkey, 50,000 are charged with terror-related crimes, and
  4. A new, extremely large hospital, whose necessity and funding was under public scrutiny and criticism, was built and opened in a rush.

Language Changes Around Us

In some parts of the city, you never hear it, or it is hidden under the grunts of the hustle-and-bustle of daily life. It shocks tourists and newcomers, and sometimes even the natives. The call to prayer from the mosque, delivered five times a day in Arabic by the muezzin, the assigned imam, is a symbol and an inseparable part of the daily lives of the Turkish people. 74% of the Turkish population identify as religious (though most admit to failing to fulfill all of their religious duties and services), and the present government has enjoyed the unifying nature of their religious identity on many occasions. In the early years of the Republic, for 18 years, from 1932-1950, these calls were delivered in Turkish, only to be converted back to Arabic in 1950. Friday midday prayers at the mosques are deemed essential and are social, political, spiritual gatherings for the male population.

As with everything else, Covid-19 has affected the representation of the mosques, and the purpose and duty of the religious officials in a surprising way. Just five days after the first case, collective prayers at the mosques were forbidden. This was such an unexpected move by the government that crowds ended up stuck outside mosque doors on Friday. Moreover, upon centralized instructions from the Ministry of Religion, the muezzin  is now tasked with following up the call for prayer with a prayer-like statement in Turkish, which, to the best of my understanding is an interesting one, and which translates as follows:

Even though you can see that the spring has sprung, we are awaiting another Spring. Please stay at home, try to follow scientific instructions, do not come out to pray at the mosque, and pray for us. [To God] Protect us, our country, our nation, and all of humanity from Covid-19 and any other epidemics like this one, as we have trusted you, prayed to you, and believed in you.”

The utilization of the religious network to promote scientific health data, and enforce social distancing measures, the use of Turkish in delivering the message, and the overall civil nature of it, may mark a novel place for the religious official which had not been allocated until now in the hyper-divisive, identity-driven politics of the last twenty years. There seems to be a quid-pro-quo arrangement, in which our prayers and belief will naturally bring about help & relief, which reminds me of business transactions. Is this a lucky representation of the neoliberal, modern, easy & chill state of faith and belief?

Happy Ramadan (or Almost Summer)!

23rd of May is the Ramadan Feast Eve, followed by a three-day holiday that would normally bring about the moving around of more than 14 million people, visits to families, neighbours, friends, sharing of stories, food, and hugging of all kinds. This year, with a special curfew including all 81 cities, only one million managed to travel already. Everyone has the same thought, holding their breath – are people going to abide by these rules and stay home, will the government manage to enforce the rules or are we going to face another wave of infections in the next two weeks? With no answer and a lot of hope for the former, the one takeaway from all the good and bad policies, disappointments and unexpected surprises seems to be the importance of understanding, solidarity, and open-mindedness when approaching one another. We have known for a long time, and now is a good moment to remind ourselves that social institutions are helpful, and governments do not unilaterally make up the political or the public space. But we also need to acknowledge that people are similar in the face of health crises, and their collaborations and relations with one another, local, public, private entities make up the networks that end up sheltering them.

Please note that the policies, events and comments referred to in this entry cover only a limited part of all Covid-19 related movements in Turkey.

Defne Sökmen | Istanbul | May 24, 2020

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