March 23, 2021

Europe

TURKEY: Resurgent virus and vaccine worries could put tourism season at risk

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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( 4 mins)
  • Yesterday (22 March), Turkey recorded 22,216 new coronavirus cases, the highest daily number since mid-December, as cases continue to rise after restrictions were eased earlier this month.
  • Meanwhile, there are growing concerns about Turkey’s ability to secure an adequate supply of vaccines as the authorities have already missed various procurement targets.
  • Soaring infections and limited progress on the vaccination front (also in Europe) could undermine Ankara’s plans to host 34 million foreign tourists in 2021.

Turkey began easing restrictions against the pandemic on a province-by-province basis in early March when the nationwide daily infection rate was below 10,000. Even though daily cases have roughly doubled since then, President Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday no new restrictions would be imposed for now. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has held mass political rallies indoors, which epidemiologists have pointed to as super-spreader events. A recent survey revealed that only 40% of the Turkish people trust the administration’s management of the pandemic.

At present, weekend curfews remain in place in “very high-risk” cities, and Sunday lockdowns continue in “high-risk” cities. Restaurants are open for indoor and outdoor dining in all the categories other than “very high-risk,” and night-time curfews are applied across the country.

Turkey’s overall case tally (as of 22 March) is now over 3 million, while the nationwide death toll has reached 30,178. However, the excess mortality rates in municipal death registers suggest the true figure is probably over 120,000.

Medical personnel report that Health Ministry officials frequently pressure them to record Covid-19 deaths as being from other causes. The latest official figures show that the number of Covid-19 patients in critical condition is 1,644. The seven-day average of infections across the country has climbed to over 19,000, hitting daily rates last seen in December. Authorities have blamed the rise in infections on the new variants of the virus.

According to the latest weekly report (13-19 March period) on infection rates across the country’s 81 provinces, the Black Sea region ranks first in infections. The Black Sea province of Samsun was on top with 508 cases per 100k people, as Giresun followed with 356 and Sinop with 309. Turkey’s three biggest cities registered rising infection too, as the cases skyrocketed in Istanbul to 251 infections per 100k people (which means around 40,000 new infections in Istanbul alone in one week), and Ankara and Izmir followed with 108 and 111 cases, respectively.

Vaccine supply: soon to become an issue?

Since Turkey began its vaccination campaign on 14 January, it has administered over 13.6 million coronavirus vaccine jabs. Over 8 million people to date have received their first doses of a vaccine against the coronavirus, while second doses were given to more than 5.5 million. However, the overall vaccination process is increasingly marred by a lack of transparency, opaque management, and contradictory targets.

After almost three months of exclusive reliance on the Chinese CoronaVac vaccine, Turkey recently received a batch of 58,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine. The health ministry has pledged that another 4.5 million doses will arrive by the end of the month.

Turkey has thus far secured 15 million doses of vaccine, far short of the repeated targets set by the authorities in recent months. In late November, Ankara heralded an agreement to receive 50 million doses of CoronaVac from Chinese producer SinoVac. In late February, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced that Turkey would receive 105 million doses by the end of April but did not specify which vaccines would be obtained.

As of today, based on confirmed deliveries, Turkey should still have 1.3 million of the 15 million doses it has received. However, there are already signs that it may be running out. In recent days there have been multiple instances of people arriving for their appointments to receive second doses of CoronaVac and being turned away because the facility has run out of vaccine.

The production of a “local and national” Turkish vaccine has been delayed. There are about 17 different projects. In late 2020, government officials were talking about starting Phase 3 testing for locally produced vaccines in April. Now they are talking about the “end of the year.”

Confusion also prevails concerning timelines. On 25 February, Koca suggested that around 50 million people would be fully vaccinated by the end of May. Less than three weeks later, he changed the timeline by saying that Turkey was on track to vaccinate 50 million before the Autumn. The Turkish Medical Association has said the vaccination process could take up to two years to complete if it continues at the current pace.

Erdogan is set to announce a cabinet reshuffle this week. It is unclear whether Koca will keep his current ministerial position as he is widely regarded to be in a difficult position.

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