March 31, 2021


TURKEY: Sharp rise in infections puts tourism season at risk

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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The government, which relaxed Covid-19 related restrictions a month ago, has been forced to reimpose weekend curfews and reverse the normalization drive as infections continue to surge. The authorities reported 37,303 new cases on 30 March, breaking the country’s record of single-day infections since the outbreak of the pandemic. The government’s handling of the public health crisis is facing mounting criticism from both health experts and the public. Meanwhile, the vaccination rollout continues to be marred by a lack of transparency regarding the supply of vaccine doses and its timeline and over-dependence on a single supplier.

With tourism counting for 11% of Turkey’s economy and supporting around 2.2mn jobs, Turkey is keen to reopen to foreign holidaymakers as soon as possible. However, the tourism sector prospects could be severely affected by the worsening trajectory of the pandemic in Turkey and continental Europe. It is also worth noting that the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (starting on 13 April), traditionally featuring the gathering of friends and families to break the fast, arrives this year at a very challenging point of the pandemic for the country.

Tighter restrictions amid surge in infections

The seven-day rolling average of daily cases is now around 31,000 – roughly three times higher than it was on 1 March when restrictions were eased, allowing cafés and restaurants to reopen in most parts of the country, and weekend curfews were lifted on Saturdays. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca blamed Covid-19 mutations (mainly the UK variant as only a few cases of the South African and Brazilian strains have been reported so far), suggesting that they now make up some 75% of new cases.

Out of Turkey’s 81 provinces, 58 are now in the “red” or “very high-risk” zone, including the economic hub of Istanbul and the national capital, Ankara. Some 80% of the country’s 84mn people live in these areas. The latest weekly data (covering the 20-26 March period) released on 30 March indicates that the number of cases per 100,000 people was over 401 Istanbul, up from 251 in the previous week, and 184 in the capital Ankara from 107, and 156 in the western Izmir province from 111. Turkey’s Black Sea province of Samsun continued to have the highest weekly case total with 586 per 100,000 people. Coastal areas, popular with holidaymakers, such as Antalya and the area around Bodrum, are also in the highest risk category.

Faced with a rapidly worsening situation, the government was forced to reimpose some restrictions earlier this week. The nationwide weekday nighttime curfew will continue nationwide, while full weekend lockdown will restart in all red category provinces. As for the upcoming holy month of Ramadan, mass gatherings in tents and other places for the traditional pre-dawn and after-dusk meals will not be allowed. Cafes and restaurants, which are currently allowed to open at 50% capacity outside the weekday curfews and weekend lockdowns, will be closed during Ramadan and can only offer delivery services.

No transparency in vaccine procurement

On the vaccination front, Turkey will begin administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the next few days after receiving around 1.4mn doses. The authorities are now saying that 4.5mn doses of the jab will be administered by the end of April. In contrast, they had earlier indicated that 4.5mn doses would be delivered by the end of March.

Overall, Turkey remains largely dependent on China’s Sinovac vaccine. Almost 16mn shots have been administered since the vaccine drive was launched in January. Over 6.8mn people in the country have received two doses.

However, it is unclear how many Sinovac doses Turkey has received. In late February, Koca announced that Turkey would receive 105mn doses by the end of April but did not specify which vaccines would be obtained. Clouding further the picture, the same minister indicated a few days ago that the country would receive 100mn doses by the end of May.

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