As Turkey rolls out its vaccination efforts, the culture of distrust of government officials had reared its ugly head. While government leaders, their allies, and their families push to the front of the line without any remorse, some have begun to call into question what other steps could those in power be taking to prioritize their own health. As we ponder this question let’s look back at a historic example of how leaders respond to such health crises.
French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, whose book “Essays” has been passed down for who knows how many generations, happened to have been the Mayor of Bordeaux, a port city in southwestern France. However, when the black plague struck, he ran, leaving his house, his people, and his municipality. He left the city he was ruling without even taking his coat. Stefan Zweig, who talks about Montaigne’s escape, says, “We cannot picture what the plague meant at that time.” It is difficult for us to imagine because half of the population of the city our essayist was responsible for was dead within six months.
I stumbled upon Zweig’s quotes about the plague in my 2021 planner from Turkish publishing house Metis. The quote which was included was, “Those who owned a carriage and a horse were able to run away; only the poor were left behind.”
A pandemic is bad. It is horrific. Any official who abandons the people they are responsible for during a plague should not be highly regarded. Montaigne is one such official. Even after concerned citizens wrote him letters reminding him of his obligations, he did not return. So, they dismissed him. Zweig wrote, “He was not a hero,” and “He never claimed to be one.”
These events took place in the late 16th century. The environment was even more terrifying than our current pandemic. Try and imagine, a city of 30 or 40 thousand people and half of the population dies within the span of a couple of months.
Would Montaigne not have run away if he ruled during today’s health crisis? He would have, and this is how we know: Zweig wrote that our essayist was self-centered; he thought “health comes first.” As an individual citizen, this is not a major character flaw, but as a mayor?
Perhaps the people of Bordeaux made the first mistake when they gave social, political, and administrative responsibility to such a man. Even if he were not self-centered, it was certain his mind would have wandered elsewhere.
Is it necessary for an official who has taken socio-political responsibility to be a hero? Why do people go into politics in the first place? Why do they want to be deputies, ministers, etc.? What kind of person does it take to want to be the minister of defense or home affairs? Not everything can be explained through simple formulas.
Let us not do injustice to Montaigne. The man escaped the plague without looking back, but according to Zweig, he acted bravely in the face of danger during the civil war. Perhaps when both the murderer and the victim were human, he was more confident.
Thanks to the Turkish-Islamic practice of “holding power,” we have concrete and clear answers to our complicated questions. It might be inappropriate to say clear, because it was put so forcefully in front of our eyes that our eyes became sore. Our ears were deafened by the loudness of the voices. Not only have our eyes and ears been hurt and hardened, but our dignity has been made shapeless from having been beaten down so constantly. But now, during this recent display of vaccinations, there are no secrets left.
While those in power block the sale of affordable bread to the public, top executives from the ruling party came together to get vaccinated.
We watched this demonstration of privilege with mouths agape. At the same time, this showed us exactly where we stand in their eyes.
The remaining 80-odd million people, excluding the ruling class, do not know if or when they will be vaccinated. They do not know which vaccination they will get or what its effects are. They do not know why Turkey has 28 days before the second dose, while it is 14 days in other countries. They do not know whether this has to do with any failures regarding the delivery of the vaccines. Nobody knows whether there have been implicit benefits for businesses and the government in the process of choosing a vaccine. Nobody is sure whether the list of priorities will be adhered to. There are no answers to any of these questions that would enable the people to wait in peace and trust their leaders during the pandemic.
If you ask, they will tell you why the central executive board (MYK) of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was vaccinated together with the president. They justify it on the grounds that it is “exemplary and encouraging.” While such a fake environment in Turkey is ongoing, there remains a portion of the population which is against the vaccine. The rulers believe that “this exemplary and encouraging act” will make them follow what science recommends.
There is perhaps some truth in it. For instance, it was inevitable that the president would be vaccinated during a televised broadcast and that he would make a call for everybody to be vaccinated.
That is fine. But what would you say to those politicians who took this opportunity to move to the front of the line? What kind of an opportunism is this? What kind of a forceful and condescending display is that? Who do you think you are? Are you not the ones who forced millions of Turkish workers to take fatal risks and isolated all of the 65+ population in your country? If we conducted a survey, what percentage of people would believe the vaccine you got is the same one we will get? 51 percent? What percentage of people think that what you are doing is not an act to protect public health, but a political show? 61 percent? What percentage think you are handing over your fleshy arms to be stabbed with needles with such great devotion, simply because you will benefit? 71 percent?
They do not treat us like human beings and they do not give us the correct information. So, I am seriously concerned we will see the same level of success in the vaccination process. Because we are never sure who will get which vaccine. There may be groups who will be neglected or outright excluded. Such leaders may ignore our health if they stand to benefit. Additionally, people preoccupied with saving their own lives and those of their loved ones will not be able to handle the inadequacy of such officials.
I don’t know that we will ever have answers to some of these questions. How many of those, who the government considers essential, have been vaccinated, not with the vaccine that we will be given, but a more effective and reliable one? Is this a bad question? A malicious one? All right, let me put it in a simpler way: Did they buy ‘special’ vaccines for themselves?
Look where we stand. We are forced to ask who will answer truthfully because we assume that most would lie. This is not only because we have been burned by the amount of false information raining down on us from our officials and leaders, but that we have become so polarized that we even choose our toilet according to our political interests. Politics have been cancelled and replaced by identities, and whoever salutes the enemy is considered a traitor.
What did Montaigne do? He ran away. His thoughts were probably as follows: He probably assumed that the poor would suffer great losses; those who were well off would be able to protect themselves; and those who survived would belong to the upper classes and they would rebuild the city. The plague was so disastrous that the rulers were unable to decide who would be saved and who would be sacrificed.
If it were today, Montaigne would not have run away. He would have come up with this formula: I will send the workers to work. Maximum 20,000 or 30,000 of them will die. There are millions of unemployed people. They will immediately take up the vacancies. I will lock up the elderly in their homes. If they are going to die, let them die. Nobody will be surprised. They will say “they were old and so they died.” I will not let the children out. Let their parents take care of them. Those in prison and this and that… Never mind them. Then Montaigne would have taken his cellphone and dialed his top party members. Together, they would hit the road to put on a flashy vaccination tour.
Despite the annoying and insulting nature of all of this, it is so absurd that an ordinary person has difficulties grasping it. In the environment these people have created, the level of credibility for what has been said and discussed about the vaccine is steeped in such disbelief and paranoia that we even hear that “Bill Gates is implanting chips into us.” Do we expect the Head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs to give us a sermon, with his eyes ablaze, and say, “Do what science tells us to do. Get vaccinated.” Or are we okay with our leaders not being heroes?