COVID-19 hits Erdogan’s divisive domestic policies hard

Whether or not social unrest is brewing on the horizon is very hard to tell. It depends on the level of mismanagement of, or tardy responses to, the crisis.
Sunday 05/04/2020
A worker sprays disinfectant outside Ortakoy Mosque to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Istanbul. (Reuters)
Cloudy horizons. A worker sprays disinfectant outside Ortakoy Mosque to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Istanbul. (Reuters)

”This is a total eclipse of sound reason,” tweeted Emrah Altindis, commenting on the measures taken in Turkey to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. Altindis, a Turkish-American assistant professor of biology at Boston College, has been fiercely warning the Turks about the “viral tsunami” that is fast approaching Turkey.

”With great sadness, I must tell you,” he added, “from next week, the daily loss (in Turkey) will exceed 100 per day. The number of cases, which is [currently] about 18,000, will rise to between 32,000-36,000.”

Altindis points out another interesting phenomenon in Turkey, which is different from some other highly infected countries. According to his findings, the number of deaths in Italy of people under the age of 60 stood at only 1.7% and 4.59% in Spain. However, 20% of those who have been killed by the virus in Turkey were under the age of 60.

In terms of reaching the approaching peak, Dr Alpay Azap, a member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, agrees with Altindis. He expects the epidemic to reach its zenith in 4-6 weeks.

How is the Erdogan government handling the crisis? The steps and decisions taken, so far, have only added to the confusion and mistrust. While in a state of despair it struggles to keep the wheels of the economy turning. The authorities show no sign of allowing any moves for solidarity or public charity nor do they show any sign of reconsidering releasing political prisoners from overloaded prisons.

The patterns of official behaviour expose Turkey’s well-known hard-line reflexes at play. When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to the loud protest of opposition parties, recently asked people to send money to an official IBAN account, mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, both representing the opposition bloc, felt encouraged to start fundraising to deal with the catastrophe. But one day later, they were greeted with a stern countermove to block them. “Non-state entities will not be allowed to handle the affairs of the state,” said Erdogan, reminding everyone of the extremely centralised structure he has been busy building over the past six years.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu is in a desperate situation and he knows it. According to global statistics, coronavirus is spreading in Turkey faster than anywhere else and 60% of cases, according to Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, are in Istanbul, which has a population of around 16 million. The central government’s half-measures are leaving large segments of the population in Turkey to move around freely and defiance of travel restrictions is high. As of March 4, nearly 15% of Istanbulites were out and about.

“This means more than 2 million people (are still going out), and this is very frightening. It’s as much as the population of a prominent city in Europe,” İmamoglu said. Even more worrisome, the under-pressure mayor revealed that he had made several attempts to reach Erdogan but received no response.

Ignoring all the calls from various segments of society to treat the whole nation without discrimination and act in a unifying manner to face the crisis, Erdogan’s mind is, obviously, elsewhere. His statements signal that he is much more concerned about the “second wave,” namely the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic, at a stage where the Turkish economy is cracking already under the current conjuncture. The Turkish lira is tumbling, small businesses are closed, exports are falling, tourism (about 13% of the economy) seems lost, but Erdogan remains opposed to a lockdown, determined to keep some industrial sectors open.

“Erdogan’s statements give the impression that he sees this pandemic not only as a serious crisis but also as an opportunity for Turkish manufacturers. The hope is that, after the Chinese shutdown, European producers, which depend on Chinese companies for a range of semi-finished products, may consider Turkey as an alternative supplier in the longer term,” commented Bulent Gokay, professor of International Relations at Keele University in the UK, writing for the blog site The Conversation. “That’s why the government is still allowing millions of workers to go to factories, mines and construction sites despite the huge health risk.”

At this stage, it is difficult to predict what the possible social consequences of the pandemic in Turkey will be. Unlike many other governments, it became clear that Erdogan’s government had not much to offer to the unemployed and dismissed the elderly and poor segments of society. The financial resources of the state are utterly strained, limiting Ankara’s room for manoeuvre. Whether or not social unrest is brewing on the horizon is very hard to tell. It depends on the level of mismanagement of, or tardy responses to, the crisis.

Gokay may have a point. “During the next few months, it’s expected that Turkey, alongside South Africa and Argentina, could be sliding towards insolvency and debt default. After that, everything depends on how this crisis progresses and how long it will take to end,” he concluded.