Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing growing pressure to impose a full nationwide lockdown as Turkey battles one of the world’s fastest-growing coronavirus outbreaks.
Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul and one of the country’s leading opposition politicians, urged the Turkish president to impose sweeping restrictions in addition to existing curbs, warning about the number of people still out and about in the city of 15.5m people.
“I don’t even want to think, God help us, about the way that this pandemic might spread because of those people who are still outside,” he told Turkey’s Fox News channel on Monday.
The mayor of Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, echoed the call, saying: “In order to avoid a situation like in Italy or Spain . . . we have to limit the pace of the spread of the virus.”
The Turkish Medical Association has also persistently urged the government to order people to stay at home.
But in a speech to the nation on Monday night, Mr Erdogan insisted the economy must continue to function, saying: “Turkey is a country where production must continue and the cogs must keep turning under every circumstance and every condition.”
The number of coronavirus cases in Turkey has grown rapidly in the three weeks since the first was confirmed, exceeding 10,800 on Monday. The number is higher than what China, Italy or Spain reported at the same stage of their outbreaks: 13 days since the 100th case. About 168 people have died.
Turkey was suffering a “very rapid increase in numbers with quite a few deaths very early in the epidemic curve”, said Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the UK’s University of East Anglia.
But the pandemic has reversed the usual political dynamic in Turkey, where Mr Erdogan has accrued unprecedented powers in recent years.
The president is frequently attacked by opposition groups for being too heavy-handed. During the coronavirus outbreak Ankara has drawn criticism for investigating more than 300 people for “provocative” social media posts about the illness, with 64 arrests. But when it comes to imposing sweeping measures on the 83m-strong population, Mr Erdogan stands accused of being too laissez-faire.
The government has shut down schools and universities and imposed tight restrictions on intercity travel and a ban on leaving home for the over-65s. Yet the president has appeared resistant to imposing a full nationwide lockdown, instead urging everyone to impose their own “voluntary quarantine”.
Although the tourism industry and most of the automotive sector have shut down, work continues at some factories and construction sites. In Istanbul last week, more than 1.2m people a day were still using public transport, according to municipality statistics.
“It’s strange for a state like the Turkish state, which is an authoritarian state,” said Sinem Adar, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “The Turkish state hasn’t been shy about declaring a state of emergency in the past.”
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Turkish media have suggested there are tensions within the government between those who want stricter measures and those concerned about the damage a total shutdown would inflict on the $750bn economy, which is still recovering from the 2018 currency crisis.
Economists are already predicting a deep contraction in the second quarter of 2020, jeopardising Mr Erdogan’s goal of 5 per cent growth in gross domestic product this year.
But the push to keep the economy running has created conflict between businesses and their staff.
The hashtag “Stay at home is easy to say” spread on Twitter as some workers complained they were being forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods.
Economists and business associations have called for Turkey to follow other nations in providing mass cash transfers and job protection schemes to enable a stricter shutdown while protecting the economy.
About 19,000 companies have already applied on behalf of 420,000 employees for a salary support programme established as part of a $15bn package of economic aid announced earlier this month.
But Tusiad, Turkey’s largest industrial association, wants the government to go further, citing the large number of people who are ineligible because they are not part of the formal workforce. “We need to think about a mechanism to compensate people from this group who also lose their income,” Simone Kaslowski, president of Tusiad, told the Turkish business newspaper Dunya.
Turkey has some factors in its favour in the fight against the pandemic, including a young population and big improvements in the healthcare system during Mr Erdogan’s 17 years at the helm.
But, as in Italy, families are close-knit and intergenerational households are common, risking the spread of the virus from children to their grandparents.
While authorities have increased testing over the past week to more than 11,000 on Monday, health experts worry this has come too late.
Emrah Altindis, assistant professor of biology at Boston College, said there were two proven ways to limit the size of a coronavirus outbreak: the South Korean model of mass testing and isolating identified cases, or a strict, Chinese-style lockdown of entire regions.
“Unlike South Korea we haven’t done the testing. And unlike China we haven’t quarantined the cities,” he said. “Turkey is not doing what it has to do.”
Additional reporting by Funja Guler in Ankara