(Bloomberg Opinion) — One verity of the coronavirus pandemic: When top officials of a country — from China to the United States, and all parts in between — say things are under control, they probably aren’t. So the caveat-laden statement to that effect by Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca should be taken with saline skepticism.
Koca predicts that there will be no new wave of infections, “as long as measures are followed.” The Turkish government has announced a raft of new rules to prevent a surge of cases during the month of Ramadan, which is often marked by large gatherings and fast-breaking communal feasts.
Turks, like Muslims elsewhere, have been instructed to eat at home. Mosques are closed, and visits to shrines and cemeteries are highly constrained. The government has admonished people to maintain social distancing while queuing for the traditional Ramadan pide, or flatbread. “The gradual transition to the normalization process during and after [Ramadan] depends on the strict implementation of the announced measures,” Koca says.
But talk of a “new wave” is premature when the first likely has yet to crest. The health minister has claimed the rate of new cases has slowed, but he has been forced to deny reports that the official death toll is significantly understated. Likewise controversial have been hundreds of arrests for “provocative” social media posts about the coronavirus, as well as an abortive attempt to push new media controls through the legislature. The government’s own statistics show Turkey now has more cases — more than 100,000 — than any country outside the U.S. and Europe; its death toll, closing in on 2,500, places it 12th in the world. (The figures for China and Iran, however, are contested.)
Turkey’s response to the pandemic was undeniably late and lax. This failing is the more remarkable for the early cautionary tale offered by its eastern neighbor, Iran, whose travails vividly illustrated the coronavirus’s deadly effect and the perils of a tardy response.
Although Koca announced Turkey’s first case of the virus on March 11, the government waited until April 3 to quarantine its largest cities. By April 8, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe was expressing alarm about “a dramatic increase in the virus spread over the last week.”
The first lock-down, only for a weekend, was announced on April 10 with just two-hours notice; Turks flooded into shops and markets — the opposite of social distancing — to stock up on essentials. The interior minister was forced to apologize and offer his resignation.
Notwithstanding near-total lock-downs on subsequent weekends, the restrictions have been less stringent during the week, when those aged between 20 and 65 are allowed to go out. Many non-essential businesses, such as construction sites, have remained open.
But if this was meant to help prevent an economic collapse, it has not inspired much confidence among Turkish businesses. Manufacturers are gloomy, and early hopes that tourism would resume after Ramadan now look wildly optimistic.
Even as the government struggles with declining revenues, it is scrambling to mitigate what Erdogan warned would be the pandemic’s “serious economic consequences.” It has announced a $15.4 billion plan to help businesses. The central bank has been buying up government bonds to support liquidity in the market. The Turkish sovereign wealth fund has been authorized to take over distressed private companies.
But consumer confidence has, predictably, plunged. Indications point to more gloom ahead. For instance, the latest interest-rate cuts have not prevented the lira from sinking to within a whisker of the psychological threshold of 7 to the U.S. dollar.
Overall, the economy is projected to shrink by 5% this year.
As Turks begin the Ramadan fasting today, amid a new four-day lock-down, the national mood will be the most somber in living memory. Few will be reassured by their health minister’s assertion that the crisis is coming under control. And who could blame them?
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.
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