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January 5, 2021

Europe

TURKEY: Covid-19 vaccination program likely to fall short of its targets

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 5 mins)
  • The government’s planned Covid-19 vaccination program appears set to fall short of its targets and potentially add to the damage that its often confused response to the pandemic has already caused to its credibility.
  • On the logistical front, it is still unclear how the vaccination program will be administered.
  • The government’s lack of transparency in handling the pandemic has exacerbated an environment in which much is believed and little is trusted – not least when it comes to the safety of Covid-19 vaccines.

On 27 December, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca declared that Turkey would vaccinate 35% of its population of 84 million by the end of March, rising to 60% by the end of June. However, it is still unclear how the government will procure enough vaccines to meet this schedule or how the vaccination program will be administered.

All the vaccines that have been considered for inclusion in Turkey’s vaccination program require two doses per person. On 23 November, Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced that Turkey had agreed to buy 50 million doses of the CoronaVac vaccine from the Chinese Sinovac company and that 10 million doses were “already well on their way”. But it was not until 30 December that the first consignment of three million doses of CoronaVac arrived in Turkey. The consignment is currently undergoing tests and is not expected to be ready for use until mid-January. It is not clear when further CoronaVac consignments will be delivered.

On 25 December, Koca announced that Turkey had signed an agreement to buy the BioNtech/Pfizer vaccine, with 550,000 doses arriving in “late December or early January” and a further 4.5 million “by the end of March.” None has yet arrived.

Turkish health officials report that Ankara has also held talks about buying the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from the UK and the Sputnik 5 vaccine from Russia, but so far without any agreement. The pro-government Turkish media has given widespread coverage to plans for Turkey to develop its own vaccine. A few days ago, President Tayyip Erdogan declared that the Turkish vaccine would be ready by April at the latest. But no reliable information is available about its development or whether this deadline can be met.

To add to the confusion, although the government has publicly promised that the vaccination program will be free, it has also established the legal framework for vaccines to be sold through pharmacies, raising concerns that the program may meet the same fate as the government’s announcement last spring that it would distribute free facemasks to the entire population — plans that were abandoned after the website created for the purpose crashed and the government realized that it lacked the financial or logistical ability to deliver on its promises.

Nor is it currently clear how the vaccination program will be administered. The government has announced that vaccinations will take place in existing hospitals and health centers. But health professionals maintain that existing health facilities are already dangerously overstretched by the pandemic and that separate vaccination centers need to be created.

Since the first officially recorded case of Covid-19 in Turkey in March 2020, Erdogan has repeatedly lauded his government’s response to the pandemic, while denigrating the efforts of other countries. But his control of the Turkish media, and thus the flow of information to most voters, has failed to completely mask the gap between his government’s narratives and the actual situation in the country.

In September, after months of government officials publicly lambasting anyone who suggested that they were underreporting the spread of the coronavirus, Koca inadvertently publicly admitted that the government had been knowingly providing misleading statistics – pretending that the number of people who were receiving treatment for Covid-19 was the number who had tested positive for the virus. It was not until 25 November that the government began to publish the numbers of both positive tests and Covid-19 patients who were receiving treatment. As a result, Turkey abruptly rose to rank third worldwide in the daily number of new cases with over 28,000.

On 1 December, Erdogan announced a new raft of strict Covid-19 measures, including weekend curfews and at night during the week. However, as during the first wave of the pandemic in spring 2020, he resisted calls to impose a complete lockdown for fear of the impact both on the country’s already faltering economy and on his core political support among low income groups – many of whom work in the unregistered economy and are ineligible for the government’s limited furlough schemes.

On 4 January, the official number of new Covid-19 cases stood at 13,700, less than half the daily rate before the new restrictions were introduced. The government’s past record of publishing deliberately misleading data has meant the figures have been treated with caution. However, other indicators – such as reports from health professionals and municipal death registers – also suggest that the new restrictions have been successful in reducing the infection rate, although exactly how successful they have been and whether the slowdown can be sustained are both unclear.

Even if it can secure sufficient vaccines, the damage done to the government’s credibility by its previous falsification of Covid-19 case numbers has created an additional threat to the successful implementation of its vaccination program, exacerbating an environment in which much is believed and little is trusted – not least when it comes to the safety of Covid-19 vaccines. According to a 17-19 December survey by Istanbul Economic Research, only 6.8% of Turks are willing to be vaccinated with CoronaVac, rising to 17.6% for the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine, while 4.7% say they will take anything approved by the state. However, 34.8% say that they will refuse to be vaccinated at all and 29.3% that they will only accept a – currently non-existent – “Turkish” vaccine. The remaining 6.8% were either undecided or refused to respond.

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