Turkey’s campaign to vaccinate its citizens has been struggling to keep up with the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
The vaccination programme, which only began mid-January, has fuelled a certain amount of frustration from Turks who wonder why Turkey has fallen behind other countries on distributing doses. Right now, Turkey’s vaccination rate per capita is lower than its counterparts in the West at 1.4 per 100 people of a population of 82 million. Meanwhile, total deaths in Turkey have registered at 24,933 and cases stand at over 2 million.
Haluk Özdalga, a former member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), described how the Turkish vaccination has been the victim of government mismanagement.
“The coronavirus vaccine program has been a complete failure in Turkey,” Özdalga told Ahval in a recent podcast. “There are not enough doses, delivery time for these doses is too late, and they only have one single company supplying it which has raised many risks.”
Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca previously said that 25 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine would arrive in the country by the end of 2021. The delivery contract itself was only signed in December, well behind countries that began vaccinating their citizens that month.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine also is delivered in two doses so the amount purchased only covers a fraction of the population. According to Özdalga, up to 160 million doses would be required to effectively tackle the pandemic.
Before opting to acquire the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Turkey had already invested in meeting its vaccine supplies through China.
Özdalga notes however that relying on China to serve as the primary supplier has been in many ways problematic, the result of a “chain of mistakes”.
“The quantities are too little, the delivery time is too late and all the eggs are in one Chinese basket,” he said, referring to the multiple reported problems related to supply of and efficiency of China’s SinoVac that Turkey has faced in putting its bets on this route.
While not opposed to acquiring the vaccine from China, Özdalga believes that Ankara should have placed orders with multiple companies to reduce the risk of relying too heavily on a single supplier.
“Making a contract with a single company is a big mistake. What if problems may emerge with the Sinovac?” asked Özdalga before pointing to the inconsistent track record Chinese companies have in vaccine production versus Western ones.
“Turkey does not deserve to receive a low-quality Sinovac vaccine as the only option,” he said.
Another reason to be wary of the current approach that relies on China is the potential political costs attached to a deal.
There have been reports that Beijing may be using its position as Ankara’s vaccine supplier to pressure it into ratifying a controversial extradition treaty aimed at Uyghur refugees living in Turkey. Many who reside in the country are fearful of China’s reach and concerned that they risk being deported to Xinjiang, where up to a million Uyghurs are held in concentration camps.
Moreover, Turkey has reportedly been charged more than other Chinese customers for the vaccine, though Özdalga cautions the actual cost is not known.
“The Chinese of course know at least as much as we know that Turkey is in a very difficult position,” he said. “They [the Chinese] do not have a good reputation about mixing economics and politics and the Turkish government is now between a rock and a hard place.”
The mistakes of Turkey’s vaccination campaign have compounded to a point where Özdalga maintains it may be too late to more efficiently alleviate the spread of COVID-19.
Discussions are taking place about a domestic Turkish vaccine coming into production later this year to alleviate supply shortages, but Özdalga believes placing too much faith in a tentative time frame of its arrival is self-defeating.
“Developing and producing vaccines are different. From the beginning of 2020, a strong vaccine production capacity had to be established, it was not done,” he said, adding that if this capacity was ready, Turkey would have already been producing foreign vaccines at home.
The struggles of the vaccine programme together with the general devastation of COVID-19 may ultimately come back to haunt the Turkish government itself. Even among its supporters, Turks rate the economy’s performance negatively and are pessimistic about it improving.
Even as the AKP and its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, dismiss suggestions on snap elections, they remain a possibility that could put the handling of the pandemic front and centre.
“In the near future, the AKP elite may think that the enormous incompetence in the supply of vaccines is the biggest mistake they have ever committed,” according to Özdalga.