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September 17, 2020

Europe

TURKEY: It is about the pandemic not the East Med dispute

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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( 4 mins)
  • The trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic constitutes a much more tangible and immediate risk for Turkey’s economy than the Greek-Turkish dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean.
  • The withdrawal of the Turkish seismic research vessel from the contested waters will allow Ankara to dodge possible EU sanctions. But a solution to the complicated dispute is not in sight.
  • While the pandemic is on the verge of its second wave, the government keeps downplaying the scale of the resurgent outbreak.
  • The mix of mounting public distrust in the official data, new partial lockdowns and the fear of being infected will likely deal a further blow to the sickly economy.

A recent sharp increase in Covid-19 cases and fatalities in Turkey has led to speculation about the re-imposition of restrictions amid numerous reports from medical associations and health professionals that the situation in the country is considerably worse than the official government figures suggest.

On 16 September, the government announced that there had been 1,771 new cases of Covid-19 and 63 more fatalities in Turkey over the previous 12 hours. It was the highest number of officially recorded new cases in the country since early May. In his daily Covid-19 briefing, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca urged Turks to be more assiduous in following government guidelines, including always wearing a mask outside the home and applying social distancing. But he rejected claims that the government was deliberately downplaying the extent of the crisis and that the health system was being overwhelmed, insisting that the bed occupancy rate in hospitals was only 51%, rising to 66% in intensive care units (ICUs).

But there is growing evidence that Covid-19 is spreading and causing more fatalities than the government is willing to admit. In recent weeks, the excess mortality rates in municipal death registers have soared, with some cities now reporting more fatalities above the seasonal norm on a given day than the government’s figures for Covid-19 deaths in the entire country. A string of health professionals has been reporting that, in their hospitals at least, the wards and ICU units are all full and that they are treating new patients in the corridors.

The Turkish Medical Association (TTB) has become increasingly critical of the government’s failure to introduce more stringent measures to try to stem the spread of Covid-19. On 12 September, the TTB issued a statement saying that the number of new cases in Ankara alone was running at 5,000 a day, around three times the government’s official figure for the whole country. The TTB followed up two days later by launching a week-long series of activities to try to raise public awareness of the need to take preventative measures.

The TTB’s questioning of the official statistics and its willingness to take the lead in trying to raise public awareness triggered a furious reaction from members of the ruling coalition. On 16 September, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the AKP’s governing partner, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), publicly called for the TTB to be closed and replaced by a new organization staffed by “patriots”.

During the early months of the pandemic, Erdogan was reluctant to impose a complete lockdown for fear of the repercussions for Turkey’s fragile economy at a time when opinion polls suggest that his popularity is in long-term decline. He is likely to continue to resist pressure to introduce strict nationwide restrictions over the weeks ahead, not least for fear of the impact on what remains of an already very poor tourism season.

But opinion polls also suggest that nearly 80% of Turks are now either worried or very worried about Covid-19, a higher number than even during the first months of the pandemic. Most ominously for Erdogan, opinion polls also suggest that nearly 60% now distrust the government’s official Covid-19 statistics, compared with only 30% in April – raising the possibility that, after distrusting what they are being told about the coronavirus, more voters may begin to distrust what the government tells them about other issues.

A likely tactical retreat in the East Med

President Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to withdraw the Turkish ship from the conflicted area in the Eastern Mediterranean is likely to mark a respite until the end of the 24-25 September EU summit in a bid to dodge possible EU sanctions. Facing declining popularity, a worsening economy and a new Covid-19 outbreak, Erdogan could resort once again to nationalism and confrontational foreign policy to distract public opinion and consolidate his support base.

More by Wolfango Piccoli