Turkey will enforce its strictest nationwide lockdown from today (29 April) until 17 May to fight a surging third wave of coronavirus infections. Leaving aside the medical emergency, the idea is that a strict lockdown now will help to salvage the critical tourism season. However, there is considerable risk that this panic-induced lockdown may be futile, and not only because it is coming too late.
Public health experts have warned the lockdown will not last long enough to combat the surge in infections and that its effectiveness could be further undermined as the country’s vaccination program is set to struggle over the next two months due to supply constraints. There are also concerns that the lockdown’s effectiveness will be undermined by some of the exemptions (reportedly around 16mn workers are exempt from the mobility bans and mosques will remain open throughout the whole period). The greatest concern, however, stems from the fact that its announcement has triggered a mass exodus ahead of its start later today (7pm local time). Istanbul, which has the highest number of weekly coronavirus cases, has witnessed a mass exodus over the past two days, with Turks heading to vacation resorts, villages and visiting relatives. The sudden and intense mobility, together with the likelihood that people may be coming together, reuniting with others from different locations, could increase the number of infections and spread some of the variants already identified in Turkey across most of the country.
The government is desperately seeking to reverse a surge in daily cases that reached more than 60,000 last week, a record since the outbreak began. Turkey currently ranks fourth in the world in terms of new daily coronavirus cases per capita based on a seven-day average. Worryingly, the authorities reported on 28 April that five citizens tested positive for the Indian variant of coronavirus in Istanbul.
On the political front, the mishandling of the pandemic will further undermine the support for President Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan did not announce a stimulus package to offset the economic impact of the new restriction. With Turkey’s double-digit inflation, sinking national currency and rising unemployment, many Turks already have been struggling financially. A recent poll by Metropoll suggested that Erdogan’s job approval rating was 44.5% in April – around 4.5 percentage points lower than in March.
Compounding Erdogan’s troubles (and Turkey’s health crisis) is the fact that the country is running short of vaccines. Turkey’s Health Minister, Fahrettin Koca, was forced to acknowledge on 28 April that vaccine supply will be getting more difficult over the coming two months. As a result, it was announced that the interval between Pfizer-BioNTech shots will be widened to 6-8 weeks from four.
Koca also stated that Turkey has reached a deal with Russia to swiftly acquire and start producing Sputnik V locally. The deal is for 50mn doses of Sputnik V that should start to arrive from next month if Koca is to be believed. The partner to produce Sputnik V in Turkey is a pharmaceutical company owned by Ozturk Oran, the current chair of the state-owned Islamic financing institution Vakif Katilim. A committed Erdogan loyalist, Oran is the former head of the AKP in the Istanbul district of Uskudar where the president has his private residence.
Meanwhile, there is still no clarity on the timeline for the delivery of additional supplies of CoronaVac from China’s Sinovac. Turkey secured an agreement for 100mn doses from Sinovac but only around 25mn have been apparently delivered. Ankara’s decision to rely almost exclusively on CoronaVac supplies for Turkey’s vaccination program is turning out to be a major fiasco.
To date, Turkey (total population is around 83.6mn) has administered around 22.5mn doses of Covid-19 vaccines since it rolled out its inoculation program in mid-January. More than 13.6mn people have received the first dose, while over 8.8mn have been given both jabs.