The Turkish authorities confirmed 1,263 new cases of the novel coronavirus on 18 August, bringing the tally to 251,805. The death toll reached 6,016 as 20 more people lost their lives. New daily cases have been above 1,000 every day since 4 August. They were last at this level at the end of June. Yet, Turkey is likely grappling with a far bigger increase in coronavirus cases than official figures and statements would suggest. Turkish medical professionals are worried that the country may lose control of the outbreak. They also denounced that Turkey is vastly under-reporting its number of coronavirus cases. This is hardly surprising given 1) the administration’s track record in dealing with official data and figures; 2) President Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to prioritize the economy and the touristic season.
The authorities’ immediate priority is to maintain a perception that the crisis is under control to reassure consumers and possible foreign visitors (depending on the weather the touristic season can stretch up to early October). However, a substantial uptick in the infection rate could be the last nail in the coffin for the government’s fledgling bid to warm up the economy.
The Turkish Thoracic Society stated last week that the regulations set to slow down the spread of the virus were not in effect and that doctors and health-workers in many provinces started to resign. A few days later, the Turkish Medical Association warned that the “outbreak is starting to get out of control” and that insufficient testing, changes in hospital admission criteria and overworked health workers were contributing to the rise in cases.
Scientists affiliated with Turkish Thoracic Society published a letter in the medical journal The Lancet saying a requirement by the health ministry that researchers first get government approval for studies into the coronavirus in Turkey was obstructing research. They also indicated that Turkey’s noncompliance with WHO classifications likely means it is undercounting coronavirus deaths. Turkey does not count patients who exhibit Covid-19 symptoms but test negative for the virus. The Thoracic Society said that the PCR test only identifies 40% of cases.
As the situation on the ground seems to have taken a turn for the worse, it has also been noted that the health ministry has not updated its daily and weekly Covid-19 statistical bulletins, which illustrate regional breakdowns of the data in infections and fatalities, since 12 August.
…but a timid response
Signalling mounting concerns about the trajectory of the outbreak, authorities rolled out new inspections and enforcement measures, including fines for not wearing masks or maintaining social distancing. The ministry of interior yesterday issued a new directive to all provinces to hold extensive controls (this is the seventh comprehensive inspection since May) on 19 August to monitor compliance with Covid-19 rules in all public places especially wedding halls, cafes, coiffeurs, entertainment parks, sports centers, cinema halls. Meanwhile, several provinces have reintroduced stricter pandemic measures. Elderly citizens in over 20 provinces out of a total of 81, including the capital Ankara, are now prevented from using public transportation in rush hours, entering into crowded locations during certain hours of the day, and attending several social activities, such as wedding ceremonies.
Last week, the interior ministry said it was establishing “neighborhood inspection teams” comprised of local figures to monitor people who are required to self-isolate, either because they have tested positive or were in contact with someone infected. Turkish officials have already been forced to delay plans to reopen schools this month due to the rising coronavirus rates throughout the country. Schools were scheduled to open on 31 August but the country’s estimated 18 million primary and secondary students are now expected to return to school for in-person teaching on 21 September.