Istanbul’s usually crowded streets are extraordinarely empty and car traffic is at its lowest. On March 16, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality announced that public transporation had dropped by 44 percent. Whilst strolling in the parks, one will be struck by the fact that stray dogs and cats outnumber people. Thriving squares like Taksim, Eminonu or Kadikoy are deserted. 

Beyond Istanbul, reports from other large cities such as Izmir, Ankara or Diyarbakır show that people mostly stay at home, except those who have to physically be at their workplace and shoppers stocking up on goods. Yet experts are concerned that the notion of self isolation is not fully understood and that harsher measures have to be taken.

Still, in a culture where the general attitude in times of danger is summarized with the motto “bize bir şey olmaz” or “nothing will happen to us” the majority took the warnings more seriously than Europe or the US. Why is that? 

The first Covid-19 case in Turkey was confirmed a week ago, and by March 18 the number of cases had risen to 191 with two fatalities. In Europe, the outbreak happened a lot earlier. Italy’s still ongoing struggle with the virus was watched closely and caused much anxiety. It demonstrated the threat the outbreak posed here: if a much-more affluent European country, endowed with a more robust and effective health system like Italy is failing, we may well be heading to a disaster.  

The Turkish government took timely measures to limit travel, suspend school, warn against mass prayers, ban social events and risk economic loss by closing down cafes, bars, indoor playgrounds. Yet shopping malls and restaurants that do not serve alcohol remain open. 

The Ministry of Health is praised for regularly informing the public, especially on personal hygiene and individual precautions. In fact, it had been long since we had been informed without being scolded. At the moment, there is even a degree of kindness, which is a major change.  

Still, the Turkish authorities’ handling of the coronavirus outbreak has sparked serious concerns and debates over the health system’ s quality and lack of transparency.  

Reports have surfaced about efforts to quarantine travellers that turned into disasters, especially as religious pilgrims returned from Mecca to Turkey lastw week. What is more, the exact location and cities of coronavirus cases are not disclosed to the public. “Why create panic?” the pro-government media retorts. 

The Covid-19 will inevitably affect a much wider population, and Turkey’s limited testing is dramatic. The latest figure on the number of people who tested fo the virus in Turkey – a country of over 80 million people – was said to be around 9,000. Even the number of tested people is vague. 

Scientists, doctors unanimously urge for a radical testing procedure. In Istanbul, a city of 16 million, there are only four hospitals conducting tests. Gazete Duvar reported that people with coronavirus-like symptoms going to hospitals are quarantined though the hospitals have no testing material. The Ministry of Health’s hotline, 184, is overwhelmed with phone calls. Many hospitals are short on even on basic equipment like masks, gloves and sanitizers. 

Weeks ago, The Turkish Medical Association (TTB) called for a  reorganization of the health system and urged the authorities to make the test results public. Since there the government and civil society organizations are at odds with each other, these warnings have not been taken into account yet. Erdoğan’s presidential system centralized almost everything, from the media to the health sector. Anyone passing information without the government’s consent is subject to an investigation.  

According to KONDA, only 45 percent of people in Turkey believe that the state is undertaking the necessary precautions and informing the public accurately. The distrust is huge, most people believe that the government is covering up actual numbers and generally, the truth. People rely on videos, posts said to be coming from a doctor or “someone close”. Disinformation on social media has exploded.  

Society’s deep distrust of the state and the system has a reverse effect as well: we are a skeptical society, dubious of almost everything, which means we do not rely on the system or the government. This is perhaps why people avoided the streets when the first cases were confirmed. States of emergency, strict restrictions and bans are anything but new in Turkey. 

Unfortunately, the lack of transparency combined with a crackdown on freedom of expression means people will have a very hard time as the outbreak expands. The need for accurate information, to ask the right questions and get answers is greater than ever. It is a matter of life and death.