The tired eyes of Turkey's Health Minister Koca

When last weekend's coronavirus curfew was lifted by President Erdoğan and when crowds hit the streets immediately, Health Minister Koca could have thought of a better solution than sitting in front of his computer and posting a tweet.

Ülkü Doğanay

Most of us have gone through this kind of a desperate moment: you don’t know what to do, you try a hundred times and fail, and you feel like all the secret laws of the universe are working against you. I am talking about a deep, “whatever I do is useless” kind of feeling. It’s like when you try to explain something to a child, and you even get down on your knees and look into their eyes and try to explain the situation very simply. Just after you’re sure the child has finally understood, they start wailing, “But I don’t want to!”

Even though everything is so clear, it is actually you who is making things so complicated. It is you talking about different causes, data, and consequences. It is you who should be blamed because you are complicated and obscuring a straightforward situation. 

In the past couple of days, especially since the beginning of June, while the pandemic was continuing on its normal course, while there was no noticeable decrease in recorded cases, normalization steps were taken. It is not so hard to imagine that the Health Minister and the members of the Coronavirus Science Council are facing a situation exactly like this.

What drew me to write such an article was the tweet Health Minister Fahrettin Koca posted in the early hours of last Sunday. He was asking the crowd at the Moda seaside in Istanbul to wear masks and respect social distancing. After this post by Koca, the video of young people sitting close to another at the seaside without masks became a trending topic on Twitter.  

The debate over this video is another sign of the polarization in the political arena. It is a reflection of the identity clash the government is trying to spread to society. The posts on Twitter compared the crowd in Moda to the crowds that rushed to the markets on April 10 when a weekend curfew was suddenly declared. These groups were made fun of on social media because some of them were waiting in lines with just chocolate, waffles and soft drinks — none of which seemed to be essential items. One of these buyers was carrying a chocolate cake called “Luppo.” The hashtag was then named “#Luppo.” These people at the Moda seaside the other evening having fun without any fear of infection were accused of being “supposedly-informed groups who do not hesitate to humiliate others.” They were also accused of supporting the mentality that the epidemic was spread because of umrah visitors returning from Saudi Arabia. They were also the same people who had declared the “Muslims of this country” to be “uncivilized.”

Two pictures were posted side by side. One of them was the crowded Moda coast and the other was a mosque yard in which worshippers were strictly respecting the social distance rule. “Who is backward and who is contemporary is now understood” was another popular post. In the minds of the people who wrote these posts, it was like this: if those people in Moda, Istanbul, where the elite intellectuals prefer to reside, chose to sit on the lawn at nighttime on the seashore and have fun, then they must be the ones who look down on ordinary people and accuse them of illiteracy. They must be the “secularists.” Well, the time for revenge had arrived. These images were the evidence that the real illiterate and uncivilized ones were those who wanted to close the mosques to fight the epidemic.     

However, on the same day, a couple of hours ago before the Moda coast photos were shared, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca also shared a picture from Istanbul’s Galata Bridge that showed it crowded with men fishing, all of them standing very close to each other. He commented, “We don’t know whether their buckets are full of fish, but for sure, if the virus was on the bridge, then it did not go back empty-handed.”

According to those social media posters, the evening crowd at the Moda park that was sitting on the lawn or their portable chairs, chatting, listening to music and even dancing without masks or social distancing must surely be different than those who rushed to the markets and waited in lines in April, those who filled the mosque yards, those who fish from the Galata Bridge, those who walk jam-packed along İstiklal Street, and those who resist wearing masks in open markets in neighborhoods, or while sending off male friends and relatives to compulsory military service, or while riding on mass transportation. 

In fact, from the moment the measures that were taken to fight the coronavirus started being relaxed, actually while the measures were still in effect, except for the lucky souls who could stay at home, all of these crowds were the same in that they were not accepting the seriousness of the situation. Masks were worn under noses, under mustaches or even under chins. Actually, nobody is in a position to be able to accuse the other one of not being civilized.

Ultimately, a curfew was declared for last weekend at the last minute. A member of the Science Council, professor Alpay Azap, said it was due to increasing numbers of cases in certain provinces. Later, President Erdoğan lifted this curfew, and both sides did not hesitate to hit the streets. 

The same day, President Erdoğan spoke on a video conference for the opening ceremony of Yusufeli Dam, saying, “We opened the way for our citizens to be able to comfortably go out on the street.” 

With this refreshing statement, people were joyful and went out. The venue could have been the Moda shores or the Sultanahmet square. While the Health Minister was trying to warn people through social media at four in the morning that the pandemic was not over yet, his tired eyes are not just showing us the desperateness of an appointed person doing his job. Health Minister Koca, from the first moments of the coronavirus crisis, had a trustable public image. His success in crisis management has even been accepted by the opposition. In a survey done by Konsensus Research Company, Koca was in the top spot, in front of President Erdoğan, among leaders whose performance was appreciated. KONDA research company owner Bekir Ağırdır said Koca’s political grade was high and he was liked even by the opposition. From the first moments on, despite many contradictory and sometimes delayed practices, Koca emerged as a very hard-working public figure whose eyes sometimes went red due to overwork. This person was from a group of people in the government who, for a long time, had made no decisions in favor of the people. This was enough to win the trust of people from all parts of society.

Well, of course, it is the President and the presidential governing system that approved him for this position. But this system has been defective since the beginning. Rather than a government, it is one man and his close aides making decisions and applying them. Because of this feature of the system, some would say that “the health minister is trying hard, but he can only achieve so much.”

However, if you look at what is happening from another window, facts that cannot be hidden are continuing to stay out there, despite his industriousness and the love and approval of people for Health Minister Koca.

Minister Fahrettin Koca is an appointed member of the government, and was hesitant in quarantining those returning from the umrah visit, thus causing the spread of the virus nationwide. This is the same government that has violated fundamental rights, such as locking down citizens over 65 and children for extended periods and possibly causing other health issues. It’s the government that has not taken any significant measures for certain sectors of society and workers — except for weekend curfews. It is again this government that, despite the declarations by health workers that they do not have adequate protective equipment, was boasting about sending masks and protective goods abroad. Again, this government has decided to open, rather early, the hair salons and shopping malls without a comprehensive testing of workers. Even though he is an appointed minister of this government, Koca is a medical doctor and he is the name at the head of this fight against this pandemic; he has a responsibility toward the people who trust him so much.

Thus, when the curfew was lifted by the generosity of the President and when crowds hit the streets and shores immediately, the health minister could have thought of a better solution than sitting in front of his computer and posting a tweet.