This week, 24 people were arrested in Turkey. Not because they violated quarantine orders, and not because they have links to exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen. These are people who “spread lies and criticized ministers and senior government officials on social media,” as Health Minister Fakhruddin Koja put it. They’re not the only ones – another 137 online activists have been identified, and they too are expected to be summoned for interrogation. Their crime is doubting the official tally of coronavirus victims and “causing panic.”
It’s still unclear with which felony they would be charged, but the Turkish law is abound with clauses that would let authorities write up a formidable set of charges against them. The core of their criticism is that the government is hiding the exact number of those infected with the coronavirus, after two people had already died of the disease (not including the 20 Turkmenistani nationals who died after drinking counterfeit liqueur in Istanbul, believing it would protect them from the illness).
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The public’s faith in government declarations is eroding, and a recent survey shows that only 45 percent of respondents trust what the government says or does. In the meantime, rage is rising. A few days ago, several dozen citizens clashed with police forces who enforced their quarantine at a boarding school in the city of Konya. These were pilgrims who returned from Mecca and had immediately been put into two isolation facilities, under police supervision. They claim their “imprisonment” was automatic, without any examinations or identification, and in severe conditions of isolation.
By the start of this week, only about 7,000 tests had been performed in Turkey, leading citizens to believe that the actual numbers are much higher than the official figure of 191 confirmed cases. Some assess that within a short while, the number could rise to some 30,000 cases unless the government takes drastic measures to locate and isolate patients.
Turkey has yet to announce a complete lockdown, but ordered the closure of bars, clubs, schools and universities, museums and driving schools. Soccer matches go on, but without spectators. Visitations have ceased for prisoners in Turkey’s jails, and citizens or visitors from a long list of countries – including Germany, Italy, China, Iran, Iraq, Austria, Norway, Sweden and Spain – have been barred entry.
At the same time, some experts on TV shows explained that Turks are naturally immune to the virus “because of the structure of their DNA,” whereas President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promises that if citizens comply with quarantine orders and maintain personal hygiene, “the whole story will be over within three weeks.”
Strict surveillance and tracking of citizens are not out of the ordinary in Turkey, but as opposed to Israel, the country is thus far shying away from giving security agencies sweeping permission to track the movement of it 80 million citizens, and its parliament continues to operate as usual.
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Tourism under fire
As in all countries affected by the coronavirus, the main threat facing Turkey is to the economy and the massive losses incurred by manufacturers and service providers. Only about two months ago, the government heralded a gradual emersion from the economic crisis that has befallen Turkey since 2018, and expected growth of over five percent. The central bank reduced interest rates for the seventh time to 9.7 percent in a move that encouraged loans, which should have increased consumption and manufacturing. But then the coronavirus came, delivering a tough blow first and foremost to the tourism sector.
Last year, tourism grew over 17 percent and brought in about $34.5 billion. Last month, tourism numbers shrank by dozens of percentage points, hotels reported a 70 percent drop in occupancy and national operator Turkish Airlines stopped almost all international flights and reduced domestic flights, prompting skyrocketing losses. It is estimated that if the outbreak lasts until June, some 1.2 million employees in the tourism sector might lose their jobs and the unemployment rate, currently at 13.7 percent, will rise by dozens of percentage points.
“We’ve stopped coming into the office and selling tickets. There’s no one to sell to and nowhere to fly,” a travel agent from Istanbul told Haaretz. “We’re now waiting for the implementation of the aid program Erdgoan announced, but no one know how we’ll get the money. If it goes on like this, we’ll all go bankrupt. The sector’s recovery could take between a year and a year and a half, so that even if we get the money today, we might only be able to fund office maintenance – but there won’t be any income until the plague ends around the world.”
The special aid program, which the government released Wednesday, includes guarantees for loans at a total sum of 14 billion euro. “It’s an insignificant sum for a market as big as the Turkish market,” said a member of the trade bureau, who spoke on condition of anonymity (“so that I won’t be charged with criticizing the state”). “In European states, governments allocated tens and hundreds of billions to help manufacturers and merchants, whereas here they’re only willing to delay tax collection or spread out debts. But clearly we’re going to have to pay all that money eventually,” he complained.
Erdogan has asked the banks to delay debt payments by six months and continue offering loans under improved conditions. He also ordered to push back national insurance payments for employees in industrial sectors, allocate 285 million euro for the poor, send pension payments to those over 70 directly to their homes so they will not need to go to banks, and increase minimum pension payment to $231.
According to the governor of Turkey’s central bank, Turkey has enough reserves to see it through the present crisis, but estimates by international funding agencies present a different picture. According to these estimates, Turkey had reserves of $35 billion in December (not including private bank deposits within Turkey), but during the first two months of this year it spent many billions in an attempt to uphold the value of the Turkish lira, which plummeted this week to its 2018 level. Ordinarily, Turkey could expect an accelerated refilling of its foreign currency reserves through augmented manufacturing and exports, something which should have followed its decision last September to grant guarantees worth $60 billion to local manufacturers and exporters. But now, export-driven sectors of the economy are shrinking dangerously.
Exports to Germany, China, Italy, Spain, Iran and Iraq, which buy 27 percent of all Turkish exports (which totaled $46 billion in 2019) have almost completely dried up. Enormous surpluses have been piling up in warehouses, and even when there are overseas customers, getting the goods delivered has proven difficult. Hundreds of Turkish trucks which had delivered goods to Central Asian countries are now stranded in Turkmenistan, unable to return. The process of sanitizing and disinfecting these trucks is lengthy, leading to significant delays in commercial traffic. The shortage in means of transportation, which stems from drivers’ fears of going to Iran and Iraq, has already increased transportation costs, which can amount to $5,000 for each truck going to Iraq, compared to $1,500 before the outbreak of COVID-19.
Overland commerce between Turkey and Iran and Iraq goes through buffer zones, in which trucks are disinfected and drivers tested for the coronavirus, but this takes three to five hours, after waiting in long lines, since there are 700 trucks a day at the border crossing to Iraq, compared to 1,500 before the virus emerged. Transport to and from Europe has also become an exhausting process, due to new European Union regulations that require permits from transit states and meticulous inspections.
The refugee crisis
Turkey is also under threat of the coronavirus spreading through the roughly one million refugees now trying to enter its territory because of the violent clashes in Syria’s Idlib province. “We have no way of checking every single refugee for the virus,” explained Serdar Kilic, Turkey’s ambassador to Washington. “We need the help of European countries in order to absorb these refugees.”
Erdogan announced recently that refugees wishing to leave Turkey and go to Europe are invited to do so. He also instructed border guards not to prevent their crossing over to Greece. But this week, following a video summit with European leaders, Turkish border guards began returning refugees to Turkish soil.
It appears that the European Union is ready to add another 1 billion Euros in aid to Turkey, on top of the 6 billion it committed in the accord on refugees that was signed four years ago. The problem is that most refugees in Turkey do not live in refugee camps, but in cities and towns. It is hard to test those living there for the coronavirus or to offer them medical assistance. Refugees are hesitant to report their illnesses, and especially the coronavirus, lest they become targets of harassment or subjected to accusations that they were the ones who introduced the virus into Turkey.
A Syrian refugee who is interested in reporting his concerns of being infected must contact the health bureau, ask for an Arabic translator, which is not always available, and if he does not possess official identification documents, he may be denied medical services. The option of leaving for Europe, provided by Erdogan, led to tens of thousands of refugees amassing on the Turkish-Greek border. This made it all but impossible for those in the crowd to maintain an appropriate distance between one another, raising concerns that just one sick person could infect the entire refugee population crowding near the border, creating an unprecedented humanitarian disaster.
“We find ourselves in an intolerable, paradoxical situation,” a human rights activist from Bozagici University, situated in the European section of Istanbul, told Haaretz. “We now have to believe that what Erdogan is doing is the correct move, and hope that he succeeds in his policy of combating the coronavirus. He is the only one who can deal with the European states, and maybe even solve the refugee crisis,” he said.
“But this is the same Erdogan who is persecuting us, who fired hundreds of my colleagues, and who is trampling human rights,” he added. “I loathe him, but it’s hard for me to suggest someone else who can, at this point, handle this crisis more effectively. We’re lucky there are no elections now, he could get himself appointed king or emperor if he wanted to.”