(CNSNews.com) – Turkey is bracing for the possibility of a significant increase in coronavirus cases, after a bungled weekend curfew announcement saw masses of people in the country’s major cities rush to stores, many of them ignoring social distancing and mask-wearing requirements.
Members of a “Science Board” established to lead the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic fretted that a month of risk-mitigation efforts had been squandered in two hours of chaos on Friday night.
One of them, infectious diseases professor Serap Simsek Yavuz told the Hurriyet daily that she hoped the disease would not “peak in the coming weeks” as a result. She voiced regret that the health minister’s 30-day effort had been “wasted for [soda] and bread.”
Even before the episode, Turkey’s COVID-19 situation was looking troubling.
The country of 82 million reported its first confirmed case only on March 11, and its first death six days later. But by March 26, more than 1,000 new cases were being reported daily, and for the last five consecutive days the number of cases jumped by more than 4,000 each day. The death toll late Sunday stands at 1,198.
The speed at which Turkey shot up the list of worst-affected countries in Europe is startling. On March 15 it was in 45th place out of 50 European countries on the World Health Organization’s daily update.
It is now in sixth place for the number of cases (behind Spain, Italy, Germany, France, and Britain), and in eighth place for the number of deaths (behind Italy, Spain, France, Britain, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands.)
At 10 PM on Friday night, the government announced that with effect from midnight, all non-essential businesses in 31 provinces would be shut for 48 hours. Despite the short duration of the curfew, and the fact that bakeries (and pharmacies) were exempt, the timing of the announcement triggered a rush to grocery stores and markets, especially in major cities including Ankara and Istanbul.
Television and social media images showed crowds of people in stores, traffic jams, long queues, and often limited or non-existent social distancing as people tried to stock up before midnight. Despite a government requirement a fortnight ago for mandatory face mask wearing in crowded areas, many people on Friday night appeared to be ignoring it.
Accepting responsibility for the chaos, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, said Sunday he was tendering his resignation.
But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director in a series of tweets on Sunday night praised Soylu’s efforts since his 2016 appointment, and said that Erdogan would not accept his resignation.
(One of Erdogan’s most senior ministers, Soylu has the distinction of being twice targeted for U.S. sanctions in the past two years – first in August 2018 over the treatment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical leader accused of espionage and terror-related offenses, and then again last October, in response to a unilateral military offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces who were allies in the U.S.-led campaign to defeat ISIS.)
The 48-hour curfew ended at midnight on Sunday. Existing restrictions on movement of Turks under the age of 20 and above 65 remain in place, enforced with fines and prosecutions.
Schools, restaurants, and public gathering venues are closed, and international flights have been banned, with domestic flights curtailed.
Erdogan has been urging Turks to keep themselves in voluntary quarantine.
“The more strictly we adhere to the rules, the faster we curb the spread of the outbreak and thus completely eliminate the threat,” he said in a televised address to the nation last week. “Otherwise, it will be inevitable for us to fall into the situation which some countries we are today sadly following have found themselves in.”
With the upward infection trend in recent days, it may be just a matter of time before Erdogan is compelled to take steps – like mandatory lockdowns – which he has resisted so far in a bid to keep the economy afloat.
About 60 percent of the COVID-19 cases are reported in Istanbul, Turkey’s biggest city with a population of 15 million. Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party, has been calling for a lockdown in the city, if not across the country.