- Economic (and political) imperatives continue to shape Turkey’s fight against Covid-19.
- The vaccination rollout is currently disrupted by supply issues and it is unclear when an adequate provision will be secured.
- Barring a late rebound, the tourism season this year is likely to be worse than in 2020.
Turkey began easing its strict coronavirus lockdown on 17 May by allowing movement during the day while keeping overnight and weekend curfews in place until early June. Inter-city travel will be allowed outside of curfew hours, while restaurants and cafés will be limited to takeaway services. Shopping malls will open on weekdays but facilities such as sports clubs and cinemas will remain shut.
The authorities tightened coronavirus measures on 29 April after the number of daily Covid-19 cases soared above 60,000 in April, one of the highest rates globally, and deaths reached nearly 400 a day. The number of daily new cases has fallen to around 11,000, sharply down from last month but still above the target of 5,000 President Tayyip Erdogan set at the start of the lockdown.
The government is seeking a swift reopening to bolster its ailing economy and to salvage the tourism season and the flow of much-needed hard currencies it brings. It is estimated that around 27% of Turks are currently struggling to meet their basic needs. Unsurprisingly, an April poll by the Metropoll indicated that 38.1% of Turks believe that the economy is the most important problem facing the country and 23.4% think that it is unemployment. Covid-19 comes a distant third at 10.8%. On the tourism front, revenues dwindled to around USD 12-13bn last year, a marked decline from the pre-pandemic USD 33-34bn. The drop in tourism has clobbered Turkey’s current-account, whose 12-month rolling deficit reached USD 37.8bn as of February, compared with a surplus of USD 3.76bn a year earlier.
Turkey is targeting 30 million tourists this year (and revenues of around USD 23bn), almost double the figure in 2020. But there is a meaningful risk that 2021 could be worse than last year. Tourism revenues between January and March were down by 40% compared with the same period of 2020. On average, the summer season counts for around 40% of Turkey’s total tourism revenues. Looking ahead, the prospects for a rebound heavily depends on decisions taken in the UK and Russia.
On 12 May, the UK placed Turkey on its “red list” for travel, banning visits for pleasure and imposing stringent quarantine rules. This is expected to be reviewed by the British authorities in late May or early June. Depending on the year, British tourists are the third or fourth largest group of foreign visitors entering Turkey. On 12 April, Moscow announced it was suspending all but two weekly flights to Turkey until 1 June, ostensibly in response to the growing number of infections in Turkey. It is unclear when Russia, which sent more tourists than any other country to Turkey last year (around 2.1 million), will look at the matter again.
Health experts warned that a recent fall in daily case numbers could be due to a decrease in testing, rather than the success of the latest short (17 days) lockdown and the vaccination program. The number of daily tests has dropped, from around 320,000 in mid-April to 202,243 on 16 May. As for the desired target of 5,000 infections per day, the concern is that due to the dire imperative to avoid another lost tourism season it will be reached by playing with statistics or holding back on testing just like in earlier phases of the pandemic.
On the vaccination front, the campaign has slowed down since the beginning of May due to supply hurdles. Only around 200,000 shots per day have been administered recently even though capacity is much higher. Faced with supply difficulties, the authorities have also extended the interval between the two doses of the vaccine. A fundamental lack of transparency characterizes the whole vaccination rollout.
Turkey has reportedly (no official figure available) received 25-26 million of 100 million doses from China’s Sinovac and about 4.5 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. A new batch of Sinovac vaccines arrived in Turkey last week, though the quantity remains unclear. Ankara has also signed agreements to receive additional vaccines as well as licenses to produce Sinovac’s CoronaVac and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine locally in the near future, but no details have been provided by the authorities.
As of 17 May, around 11 million people have been fully vaccinated, or 13% of the population, with 3.9 million having received only a first dose.