Politics in Turkey is failing during the coronavirus outbreak

The Turkish government has not taken steps related to the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak. They actually took steps in the opposite direction asking people to do their own homework and resisting a total lockdown in the country. Meanwhile, the opposition self-quarantined itself politically.

Can we blame the government and the entire political system for not doing their homework in the coronavirus case? We only talk about what they have done, not what they have not done. If we conduct politics within the boundaries the government has drawn, if we do not step outside that line, then life seems as if it is continuing at its normal pace. Is this possible when there is an economic crisis coming toward us like an avalanche, a climate crisis that is getting increasingly worse, and a pandemic like COVID-19?

Doctor Ai Fen was the first person to detect the virus at Wuhan Central Hospital. She sent the test results to Doctor Li Wenliang in the afternoon of December 30, 2019, who in return sent the information to his team with the warning to be careful. Police came to Doctor Wenliang on January 3 and accused him of “spreading false comments on the internet.” This was the first reflex of the Chinese state regarding the epidemic.

An interview was done with Doctor Ai Fen in March about the event. This interview was removed from broadcast after three hours. Doctor Li Wenliang, on the other hand, lost his life due to infection by the coronavirus on February 6, 9:30 p.m.

There were 291 cases diagnosed on January 20 in the Wuhan province of China, and on January 24, there were 864 cases in China. As of January 31, there were 9,802 cases and the disease had spread to all provinces. It was January 31 when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). In one month, the coronavirus, COVID-19, had seized the biggest population on earth.

Turkey’s first test with coronavirus

In the last week of January, Turkey took serious steps regarding the new coronavirus.

1. A guide for health staff was published.

2. An operational center was established in Ankara for the “coronavirus.” A 15-person team from the General Directorate of Public Health monitored all the information on coronavirus nonstop.   

3. The Corona Science Council (KBK), composed of 26 scientists, was formed on January 28.

4. Forty-two people were brought to Turkey from Wuhan.

This is dizzying, right? The government was so effective that the Health Minister directly got involved when some people within a group of Chinese tourists in Aksaray, central Anatolia, were suspected to have had a coronavirus infection. 

An earthquake struck the eastern city of Elazığ on January 24, and people were asking where all the money collected to heal the wounds of earthquakes in Turkey had gone. The government was working for the people in a way it hadn’t for quite some time. The Science Council met for the sixth time on February 2 and for the eighth time on February 5.

Corona in February

The real mistakes came in February. Just think: WHO had declared a public health emergency, the disease was starting to be seen outside China, and work is slowing down in Turkey.

There must have been dozens of meetings held and hundreds of decisions taken in February, but the meetings of the Science Council had become less frequent by then and its decisions were getting weaker. So much so that the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies (TÜRSAB) was able to issue a statement saying “There is no crisis that would hamper the organization of the umrah and the hajj.”  

However, one day after this statement, TÜRSAB board member Diyaeddin Şahin said they had established a crisis desk together with the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), Turkey’s Jeddah consulate and TÜRSAB. But this was not due to the Science Council, but Saudi Arabia’s decision of suspending umrah entries on February 27. They closed the Kaaba for prayers on March 5. The first decision on February 27 was due to 330 cases detected in Middle Eastern countries. But Turkey, instead of recalling the 21,000 mostly elderly people performing their umrah visit in Saudi Arabia, opted to leave them in the middle of the epidemic.  

How much worse can March be than February?

February was worse than January. March was worse than February because in a country such as Saudi Arabia, where the epidemic was spreading, 21,000 people had stayed for two weeks. March shouldered this February mistake. In March, the coronavirus epidemic was a pandemic, a global epidemic. WHO declared a public emergency one month after the detection of the disease, and 40 days after that, it declared a pandemic, demonstrating the speed of the process.

Turkish policies that had slowed down on January 31 went the other way after March 11. The government announced a package that looked out for capital owners but ignored the disease. It resulted in a situation that targeted the elderly, collapsed the social state, and did little for the people or the epidemic.

The situation was so bad that decisions were not being made by the Science Council anymore. How do we know this? The fact that students were moved out of their dormitories after midnight at 3:00 a.m. to create space to put people in quarantine, and many other details, shows who actually made the decisions. Anyway, eyes in this country have seen elderly uncles and aunts staging protests and resistance at student dormitories. But what we have observed hurt the public conscience.

The miracle of March 11 was that the first case of coronavirus was declared in Turkey. Yes, the same day a pandemic was declared, the first case was declared. Then, three things happened.

First, policies that weren’t nothing, but worse than nothing policies were implemented. It was almost like the opposite of a policy. Second, this was politics that only worked for itself. You can take a look at the decision published in the Official Gazette to understand this. Third, policy was made according to President Erdoğan, not according to the coronavirus. The peak of this was reached when we saw at the beginning of the week that eight trustees were appointed by the government to take the place of eight elected mayors in towns in the southeast.

Opposition parties in self-quarantine

In the aftermath of the Elazığ earthquake, while the question of “Where is all the money collected for earthquake recovery?” was loud, politics was different. But after March 11, politics self-quarantined itself. We can just look at three things for this.  

1. Let us look at when the Twitter accounts of political parties used the words “korona,” corona, COVID or virus. This allows us the opportunity to make a comparison. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) posted its first tweet with these words on March 14. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) posted them on March 10, the Felicity Party (SP), main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Future Party all posted on March 12, and the İyi Party posted them on March 15. The DEVA Party, established on March 11, tweeted on March 17. The only exception is the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which tweeted on January 31 with a reference to the virus. In short, until the declaration of the pandemic, few referred to it.

2. Second, let us look at their action plans. Almost all the political parties have announced packages that focus more on the economy than the epidemic. First, Ali Babacan of the Future Party tweeted their economic plan on March 17, followed by Erdoğan on March 19, İyi Party leader Akşener on March 20, CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu on March 23 and Garo Paylan from HDP on March 24. None seem to have done anything since WHO declared the pandemic. The interesting thing is that the opposition announced a plan as if it were the government.  

3. Legislation continued in this period with its own agenda and secondary issues. For instance, a bill to increase Turkey’s contribution to the African Development Bank, so that Turkish contractors doing business in Africa will benefit, was passed on the evening of March 24 with votes from AKP, MHP and CHP. The same evening, an omnibus bill was also passed. Similarly, since March 11, a series of policy documents, mainly secondary regulations, had been published in the Official Gazette. Since the opposition was not monitoring them, they were not even questioned. On March 16, the responsibility for all protected lands was transferred to the president. Another declaration on plastic bag fees and waste passed on March 22.

Very openly, the ruling AK Party is using the coronavirus as an excuse to implement its own policies full speed while the opposition is using the quarantine as an excuse to self-quarantine itself. But, you know, this is politics, so there is never a void left unfilled.

The government has not taken steps related to the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak. They actually took steps in the opposite direction. It introduced VAT cuts for plane tickets and increased loan limits for mortgages. It asked the people to do their own homework. It said everyone should declare their own state of emergency. This left the elderly as targets, making many in the opposition call for a curfew.

The opposition did not do anything related to the seriousness of the matter because they were thinking like the government. They were just as neoliberal and populist as they were.

The solution

Politicians should listen to the doctors. But when this is advised, they won’t listen. Politicians should consider and question the matter scientifically not through populism. Not that they will do so when this is advised. Politics should look out for society and nature. But this will not happen either. Well, what is the solution?

As a matter of fact, we do not need a huge political formula. Today, the government does not connect with the people. While we have the head of a private hospital as the head of the Science Council and the owner of a travel agency as the Tourism Minister, it is impossible to expect any solution that takes the people into account. While there is a doctor from the private hospital Medipol in the Science Council, there is no representative from the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) or from Health Laborers Union.

Can a decision come out of this council that favors wisdom, science and people? Likewise, the opposition does not have any connection with the people either. A government without the people, an opposition without the people, will of course not consider nature, society and science. And reducing the solution to connecting to the people alone will not bring about a solution that protects science, nature and people. A political system where the government is accountable to democratic organs is the main tool for this.

While the coronavirus was detected on December 30, while a public health emergency was declared on Jan. 31 and developed into a pandemic on March 11, the government was conducting its own business even faster than before. Meanwhile, the opposition self-quarantined itself politically. In the midst of this, no policy or wisdom has been developed regarding the pandemic. The current regime itself has become a public health issue.

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