Turkey’s government officially declared its first Covid-19 case on March 11. Though the Health Minister – whom many praised for his supposed good management of the corona pandemic – declared there was only one case, everyone suspected this was the beginning of a crisis. The experiences of other countries showed that a rapid spread was at the door and that we were to enter a period of extreme caution that would affect our daily lives.
While President Erdoğan was castigating the opposition, what drew the public’s attention was that he and his aides used thermal cameras to protect themselves. A summit that was meant to take place in Istanbul on March 17 was also conducted through videoconference with the French, German and British leaders.
The President seems to be aware of the threat posed by the coronavirus as he adopts protection measures for himself. According to a story from the semi-official Anadolu Agency, Erdoğan is also guiding the Turkish business world through the crisis. The Head of The Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (TOBB) Rifat Hisarcıklıoğlu said himself and the president were working to alleviate the damage caused by the pandemic. Anadolu Agency reported Hisarcıklıoğlu has asked 365 chambers and markets to report on their activities, plans, demands and suggestions. He is to communicate with them through teleconference. Among the measures he has pushed through was the cancellation of all assembly meetings of all chambers and markets schedule for April.
Of course, as the largest organisation of the Turkey’s bourgeois class, the TOBB is protecting itself. Ankara’s Chamber of Industry (ASO) has also postponed its meetings for March. Its head Nurettin Özdebir will also hold most of his meetings through teleconference and on the phone. Those generous industrialists granted administrative leaves to the ASO staff that is over 60 and gave annual leaves to staff with school-age children.
As for Turkey’s elite industrialist club, Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD) said it would take “precautions to minimize person-to-person spread and prevent crowded environments are critical to reducing risk. It is our shared responsibility to swiftly implement public health measures and to act in full cooperation with the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and individual citizens during this process.” Again, they protect themselves with measures such as teleconferences and avoiding crowded environments.
Yet do the TÜSIAD and TOBB capital owners have any advice to offer to the staff in the own businesses? For instance, what should an Arçelik – a giant Turkish manufacturer – employee do, as he or she reads that TÜSİAD advises measures “to avoid being in crowded environments” or an OSTİM worker who sees that ASO bosses have switched to videoconferencing?
What if the private sector’s ordinary citizens wish to follow TÜSİAD’s advice and act accordingly to it? Should they stop going to work? Is there any assurance that they would not lose their jobs in that case? In fact, there hasn’t been a single Turkish company so far up that grants paid leave to their workers: neither from TÜSİAD members, nor from TOBB members. Ford has announced it would temporarily halt its activities amid the pandemic, though only after March 30. The priority is obviously not the workers’ health workers but stocks, orders and production charts.
On March 17, the Istanbul Branch of the Labor Unions Platform (İİSŞP) issued a statement putting forward news the situation of of workplaces, especially those that do not benefit from strong unions, was dismal. It said that employers were not taking the necessary precautions and that some were even using the crisis as an opportunity to fire people, impose unpaid leave and force flexible and uninsured work conditions. The executives of other labor confederations such as DİSK and KESK are voicing similar warnings.
That is the situation Turkey finds itself amid an epidemic that threatens everyone indiscriminately, rich or poor. In this context, the ruling AKP, which came to power with a populist rhetoric catering to “those without a voice” is again helping the capital-owing class.
While bosses are videoconferencing, workers are forced to work with no precautions. In private universities, which are closed, the academic personnel are told to do drudgery. If they oppose to it, they threatened to be fire. And no financial measures are to be adopted for retirees, the largest group at risk. The work places of the small businesses close down, but big bosses are allowed to make their workers work “as they wish.”
I shall continue to discuss the consequences of this epidemic in Turkey and beyond. But after only one week, the pandemic’s most striking effect is its unequal impact on different socio-economic classes.