Tourists wearing protective face masks walk across Eminonu Square in Istanbul. PHOTO: GETTY

How Turkey bungled its COVID-19 response

Many fear that COVID-19 could be used by the government to increase its control over social media usage in the country

Prominent historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun’s teachings have had an immense influence on statesmen and educationists in the Republic of Turkey and those belonging to the Ottoman Empire. Khaldun has a significant theory with regards to social cohesion in Turkic communities. He postulates that governments rise to power with their ideologies and often squash opposing ideologies in order to ensure their own authority. However, at the end of the day, governments which engage in such practices lose their power dramatically. Consequently, when the opposing ideology rises to power it too starts crushing the opposition until it too finally loses power. As a result, the main objective of engaging in such a practice is to keep the spirits of party partisans high.

One can witness this starkly in the nearly 100-year long history of the modern Republic of Turkey. Especially during the last 18 years, where the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government has proven the veracity of this theory by trying its best to thwart all positive projects and developments which the state is not directly involved in. The last decade in Turkey has been a period of utter decline and decadence which, under normal circumstances, will require at least two decades to mend. However, it has now led to Turkey bungling its response to a very serious threat.

As COVID-19 ravaged one country after another and began knocking at the Turkish borders, the opposition in Turkey virtually begged the government to take swift precautions. Yet, lest the opposition score a point against it, the government lied about the precautions it was taking and stubbornly denied that any coronavirus cases had emerged in the country. An expert commission of prominent scientists was formed to address the looming crisis but neither schools nor social gatherings were cancelled initially. Exploiting religious sentiments for political gains, the government madly allowed more than 20,000 citizens to go to Saudi Arabia for Umrah on February 20, 2020. The opposition sprang into action and demanded that the umrah travellers be quarantined upon return, leading to a delayed quarantining after several previous travellers had already dispersed across the country. A leader of an opposition party also accused Erdogan of “rejecting key recommendations made by the Turkish Health Ministry’s Scientific Committee to tackle the coronavirus”, but the government has denied all such claims.

While countries across the world declared social and economic relief packages to protect the masses from the repercussions of the pandemic, the Turkish government has put forth a package which has drawn heavy criticism and has been described by some as a“freakish unpaid-leave policy”. Erdogan himself appeared on television and asked Turks to donate money to the state in order to help them fight the pandemic through the “We are self-sufficient, Turkey,” campaign. However, both the nature of the campaign and what it proposes has led to many believing that the government is simply trying to avoid its responsibilities during this time of crisis.

In fact, an ill planned lockdown across 31 cities led to so much confusion and panic amongst the public that it eventually resulted in Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu handing in his resignation. The resignation, however, was not accepted by the government; unsurprising given that Soylu is an important figure in Erdogan’s government. Amidst the pandemic, the state also continues to lash out against dissenting voices for “causing fear and panic among the public”. As a result, many fear that COVID-19 could also be used as a means through which the government could further increase it control over social media usage in the country.

According to the official total, as of now, there are 56,956 coronavirus patients in Turkey while 1,198 have died due to the virus. As the pandemic continues to spread, the Erdogan government is reluctant to persist with the lockdown since it will only further damage an already crisis-ridden economy. During all this, the state unfortunately continues to indulge in petty politics and has not allowed opposition parties to participate in fund raising efforts. If such an attitude continues to persist then the COVID-19 crisis in Turkey is only going to deepen.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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