Pandemic and Politics
Turkey’s Moment of Truth: Over 62,000 Covid Cases In a Single Day
After months of incompetent handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Turkey’s government faces a brutal reckoning: 62,797 cases in a single day.
After months of fumbling approach against a no-nonsense enemy, Turkey’s record of nearly 63,000 Covid-19 cases in a single day reveals the true scope of a national disaster long in the making.
On Wednesday, the public, skeptical about the government’s official statistics for a long time, was rattled to know the depth of the health crisis across the nation, while access to mass vaccination remains an ongoing matter of political controversy. The lumbering efforts for a nationwide vaccination and the government’s botched handling of the entire pandemic were precursors to Wednesday’s wrenching numbers. Turkey, needless to say, is not alone in this tragedy.
How the countries are schooled by the overwhelming impact of the global pandemic boils down to a similar conclusion around the world: combatting the coronavirus is a serious business and any government or country, which foolishly overlooks the warnings of the scientists and health experts, is unsparingly punished by it. This trial and error cycle has repeatedly recurred everywhere but few countries obtained the right lessons from their wrongs. For many, the learning curve proved longer than flattening the curve in Covid cases.
This is still so even a year after the entire world set on a warpath against the coronavirus pandemic by the deployment of strictest measures to curb its fatal contagion. That war strategy was later tempered by the pressing needs of national economies. Consequently, many governments dithered in their zealous approach, giving way to the rebellious voices rooting for lifting the shutdowns imposed in urban areas. The world now faces the third wave of Covid infections spurred by the variants that know no bounds between national borders.
The enthusiastic mood after the rollout of vaccinations in the advanced world is moderated by the realization that the virus will not fade away easily and any return to normalcy — the business as usual — is still a long way off. Driven by this sober recognition, governments fervently cling to a broad set of nationwide measures to ensure social distancing, basic safety rules, mask-wearing, and other individual requirements.
In Turkey, this cycle of errors has produced pernicious consequences, laying bare the naked impotence that came to characterize the government’s management. The months of incompetent handling of the entire process have recently become unsustainable. The country had a brutal reckoning in recent weeks as the Health Ministry, after suspected tinkering with stats for months, finally emerged content with releasing the real number of daily cases. On Wednesday, the Health Ministry announced 62,797 cases in a single day. Experts are appalled by the unpleasant fact that Turkey now tops the European league with the most infections per day.
And the sudden transparency, as many have come to reason, seemingly is designed to prompt the public for compliance with the health measures reluctantly imposed by authorities to curb the uncontrollable contagion of the virus.
In total, the country has recorded 4,025,557 cases. While the official death toll is 34,734, many believe that the number is higher. The measure of how patients with symptoms have been identified since last year was never without criticism. Ankara had refused to report confirmed coronavirus cases without symptoms until November. Since then, the government revisited its controversial approach and began to count asymptomatic cases as well after registering all positive tests into the national database. With that, the daily cases began to climb to 30,000. For a while, such figures tumbled, only to surpass it later.
Political Dance With Covid
Against this backdrop, a national party congress held by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) last month defied reason and caution preached by scientists and experts in the existential fight against the Covid. Throngs of people hit the roads on buses where most passengers eschewed masks while tens of thousands flocked to a basketball stadium in Ankara. The control by police was at best patchy, the protocol rules hazy. The pictures shared on social media touched a raw nerve on the part of society exhausted by the pandemic’s toll on their upended lives.
The scenes from the party congress were hardly conducive to any reasoned analysis and contemplation. The complete abandonment of social distancing, the refusal to wearing masks, and many other follies that were on vivid public display in late March conjured up a government detached from reality.
Suspension of all government-imposed measures at a party congress conveyed a message that did not resonate well with the rest of society. After the March congress, nobody can escape the pull of the comparison that starkly reveals the government’s double-dealing of mask-dodgers according to their political affiliation. Only non-AKP folks are held responsible for non-compliance with Covid measures, while President Erdogan’s loyal base enjoys broad exemption from the harsh tools of public oversight and punishing fines when they don’t.
No less appalling than the AKP’s Covid-flouting congress was a public celebration of Newroz, which marks the new year in ancient Persian culture and calendar, by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir. Tens of thousands of people simply evaded Covid protocols for public gatherings and joined the mass celebration on March 21.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who received treatment for Covid-19, has lamented the surge in cases in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. The municipality's resources, he revealed on numerous occasions, have severely been strained by the incessant demand for funeral vehicles and services.
The truth is that the country’s healthcare system is collapsing under the overwhelming pressure and incessant need for moving serious patients to overcrowded ICUs. Many of the medical chiefs of cities publicly confessed that ICUs in their respective city zones are out of service for newcomers due to over-capacity.
For me, the Covid impact on the health system had, if indirectly, a fallout on my personal life. Late in November last year, my father — a non-Covid patient — waited for hours to be received to an ICU at an Istanbul hospital for urgent treatment for several complications. As he waited for a vacant spot, his situation quickly deteriorated. Doctors unsuccessfully tried to provide oxygen support to him in the most manual ways in an ill-equipped room. There was no available ventilation for providing oxygen when he most needed it. When his heart stopped, doctors tried to bring him back to life, to no avail.
Even if he survived the day to fight for another one, and even if he was accepted to an ICU, there was no guarantee that he would have overcome the health challenges that had previously bedeviled him for a while. But this is beside the point. We are in no mood or under any illusion to legally sue or dispute the hospital for things they could not have delivered. The issue here is how and why the country has reached the point where it has been then and now.
More than the health system, the entire handling of the Covid-19 by the government stands a public trial here. No matter how the media seeks to keep things under the wraps, news trickle out of hospitals very quickly. The social media, the word of mouth, Twitter accounts that publish dissent voices by disgruntled physicians and doctors, and the pictures at hospital morgues that leak to the internet once again vindicate that something is terribly wrong.
Needless to say, the health disaster of great magnitude on a national scale is man-made. The natural cause of a virus that threatens entire humanity may be beyond the capacity of any government to handle the whole challenge flawlessly. But the process would be steered and coordinated more efficiently, certainly better than this.
While some countries manage the pandemic far better, many countries (with less transparency, acute incompetence, and poor management) perform dismally with fatal consequences. By all accounts, Turkey falls to the latter category.
As the Wednesday numbers attest, Turkey is fast plunging into a costly abyss during this pandemic unless the government has its moment of reckoning, self-examination, and prudent assessment of all things that went wrong.
For now, we do not see any hint of it.