Turkey has averted a full-blown COVID-19 catastrophe by implementing limited lockdowns alongside social distancing, testing, and tracing, Matthew Bryza, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, has said.
Bryza said he had anticipated a disaster in Turkey as COVID-19 broke out, as many people seemed to be unconcerned by reports of the virus’s devastating spread to neighbouring Iran and to Italy and Spain, and because Turkey did not announce its first confirmed infection until March 11, which did not seem credible.
Over the following weeks, Turkey’s COVID-19 infection rate became one of the highest of any country in the world.
However, Bryza said that his initial fears had been misplaced, and he praised the Turkish government’s “prudence and clarity” in its approach to the pandemic, which he said was based on a 229-page plan published in April 2019.
Bryza said that Turkey had moved quickly to shut schools, restaurants, bars, cafes, and gyms after its first case was identified, and soon placed the most vulnerable cohort of the population – those aged 65 and over – and the most dangerous spreaders – those aged under 21 – under curfew. Ankara imposed indefinite travel bans into and out of Turkey’s thirty-one largest municipalities, and then imposed nationwide weekend lockdowns in April and May.
“Thus far, this strategy seems to be working. Unlike in Madrid or Lombardy or New York City, Turkey’s healthcare system was never overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. And the world’s steepest coronavirus infection curve is now declining precipitously,” said Bryza.
“Furthermore, Turkey’s economy avoided the devastating shutdowns seen across the United States and most of Europe, though restaurants and cafes are only now beginning to reopen,” he said.
According to Johns Hopkins University, as of May 26, COVID-19’s mortality rate in Turkey was 2.8 percent. This compares with 5.9 percent in the United States; 12.2 percent in Spain; 14.1 percent in Britain; 14.3 percent in Italy; and 15.5 percent in France. Meanwhile, Turkey has suffered 5.27 deaths per 100,000 citizens. The corresponding statistic for the United States is 29.87; France, 42.35; Italy, 54.25; Britain, 55.46; and Spain, 61.54.
Bryza does not credit the government with all the success. Turkey has a predominantly young population, and also has very few nursing homes, with the elderly generally taken care of at home by family members.
Turkey also has an unusually large number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds in private hospitals, “which appears to have resulted not from prudent government planning, but rather from a shady gaming of Turkey’s national healthcare system by private hospital operators,” he said.
Many leading figures in Turkey would likely dispute Bryza’s analysis.
The Turkish Medical Association (TTB) has repeatedly criticised Turkey’s Health Ministry for not being transparent enough in releasing information and has said that a large number of healthcare workers have been infected with the novel coronavirus due to the lack of protective equipment.
The TTB has also warned the government’s isolation measures were insufficient and called on it to provide workers with paid leave in order to prevent millions of people mingling as they went to work.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has repeatedly called on the government to impose a stricter lockdown to halt the spread of COVID-19 in Turkey’s largest city.
Turkey’s COVID-19 test results are managed by a centralised system that is controlled by the health ministry, and many have questioned the accuracy of the figures and have suggested that the infections and deaths in Turkey have been significantly underreported. Some have said the actual daily death toll could have been as much as four to five times higher than was reported in the second half of March.
Some of Turkey’s COVID-19 strategy has also appeared to be rushed, with the first weekend lockdown announced just two hours before it was due to come into force – provoking chaotic scenes in Turkish cities with crowds gathering in the streets and panic buying.
However, Bryza said Turkey had found a way to partially keep the economy open, while restraining COVID-19 – although there is a long way to go.
“Given that U.S. President Donald J. Trump seems to genuinely admire [Turkish] President Erdoğan, maybe he can learn something from his tough counterpart in Ankara,” he said.