Since parks were fully reopened in Turkey earlier this month, Istanbul’s popular picnic spots have sparked much controversy. Images of park-goers dancing, drinking, and revelling on the seaside have spread on social media.
Responses to these picnic partiers reveal societal disagreements regarding Turkey’s coronavirus “normalization” process and misunderstandings over what behaviors pose the greatest risks. Let us not pick sides in this quasi-cultural war pitting those who use parks and those who don’t. Rather, we ought to be realistic about the people’s needs to socialize and blow off steam whilst minimizing the risks.
After months of #StayAtHome, I too was amongst those who were anxious to get a little taste of normality. I was excited to finally sit in the park with friends and emerging from a prolonged period of social distancing. Being outside, I thought, is one of the safer activities one can engage in. Scientists have shown that the risk of infection is minimal in open-air spaces where the wind dilutes the virus. It is poorly ventilated indoor spaces one should avoid when possible: crowded offices, public transportation, and shopping malls (ironically re-opened to the public weeks before Turkey’s parks were).
With these thoughts in mind, last Sunday I made my way to Istanbul’s Maçka Park. It is a rather large green space (sloping down from posh Nişantaşı to the Dolmabahçe coast) and a haunt of local picnickers, especially those whose ideal notion of a picnic snack is a bottle of cold beer. I had heard rumors of overcrowding in the parks and realized instantly upon arriving that the rumors were founded. Eventually, we found a spot in the grass that was both shady and distant enough from our fellow blanket-sitting beverage-drinkers. We began to take in our surroundings.
What is most striking about the way people utilize green space after months trapped inside is how they transform the park into whatever they have missed the most. For instance, one crew of friends set up their own makeshift hookah bar on the grass. Another group consisted of a DJ and several dancers—when the nightclubs are closed one might as well transform the park into a nightclub. Elsewhere, football fans (left stadiumless and matchless for months) came together to chant their team to victory. The beer-drinkers recreate their favorite bars; the wine-drinkers (a more romantic set) set up the coveted and intimate table-for-two on a blanket. Longing for concerts, my friends and I came with a guitar.
All in all, the scene in the park was charming in a very human manner, though one would certainly wish for a lot less crowding and a little more caution.
Yet not everyone saw the situation in this light. Footage from the Marmara Sea coast in Caddebostan – another relatively well-to-do neighborhood attached to the CHP-run Kadıköy municipality – was shared online alongside increasingly vitriolic rhetoric. One Twitter user re-posting a video of a crowd of youth dancing and singing together in the seaside park described the scene as “educated ignorance,” even worse than the ignorance of the unschooled. Another user complained that people had been blaming the pilgrims returning from the Umrah in Mecca when the true culprits, they hinted, are clearly the secular elite. Others remarked that this same elite made fun of President Erdoğan’s decision to cancel the previous weekend’s lockdown just hours after it was announced—only to flock to the parks and make a mockery of social distancing.
It is certainly true that dancing in a crowded throng of people, whether outside or inside, is not a safe activity while coronavirus remains a threat. Besides, it is only right to make fun of the way people ignored the social distancing chalk rings painted in the grass by the municipality—or misunderstood them completely. Likewise, criticisms over the intense volume of trash that people leave behind in the park are certainly correct, though littering is certainly not exclusive to beer-drinkers in Turkey.
Yet after months of staying at home and practicing distancing, it is inevitable that people will occasionally swing too far in the other direction—once given the opportunity. This is a wider social problem, one which no amount of “pandemic-shaming” (polarized along political lines like most things in Turkey nowadays) is going to solve.
A recent article in The Atlantic called “Quarantine Fatigue Is Real” should be required reading for people dictating public health policies, as well as any online troll who thinks talking down to people is an effective way to get them to change their behavior. According to the article, we need to start by admitting that physical and social distancing is extremely difficult. It has both an emotional and economic toll on people. Yet we also just can’t go back to the way things were before. We need to think in more flexible ways.
Julia Marcus, the epidemiologist and Harvard Medical School professor who wrote the article, puts it like this: “The choice between staying home indefinitely and returning to business as usual now is a false one. Risk is not binary. And an all-or-nothing approach to disease prevention can have unintended consequences.”
Sooner or later, it will be impossible to keep insisting that people simply stay at home, especially now that summer is here and establishments in Turkey are beginning to reopen. We need to grapple with this reality while also doing everything we can to reduce the potential risks. Not by shaming, but by educating ourselves.
It turns out that being outdoors really is one of the safer activities one can engage in. But there is still always a chance of danger. So by all means, gather in the park. But maintain your distance. Try not to share food or utensils. If you’re with people not from your household, you can either sit further apart or chose to wear a mask while talking. And so on and so forth…
I’m no epidemiologist, but I do know that you cannot control people’s desire for enjoyment and conviviality by simply wagging your finger at them. Let us keep dancing our dance, smoking our pipes, chanting our chants, and strumming our guitars. Let’s just do it in the safest way possible.
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