Government’s opacity makes Turkey’s war on COVID-19 harder

“We hope we don’t become another Italy… The cases are now in the thousands, not in the hundreds as they say”

While gradually toughening measures against the COVID-19 outbreak in Turkey, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears bent on opacity in communicating with the public, a policy it has followed since confirming the country’s first case on March 11.

On March 27, Erdogan announced the toughest restrictions yet, canceling all international flights, banning residents from traveling between cities via public transport and planes unless granted permission by local authorities and closing picnic sites on weekends, among other measures.

In what Erdogan described as the “most important point,” he said, “A decision has been enacted to meticulously implement these measures in all of Turkey’s 30 metropolitan cities, chiefly big cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Kocaeli. I’m not mentioning the others but only the 30 metropolitan cities for now.”

He was referring to 30 provinces whose local administrations with the status of “metropolitan municipalities.” Did Erdogan select Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Kocaeli because those four provinces are the worst hit by the outbreak? No official data is publicly available to confidently answer this question in the affirmative. One can only piece together hearsay and a few facts to guesstimate that the outbreak has likely reached serious proportions in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Kocaeli. Deduction is the only option here because Erdogan’s government has been pursuing a policy of opacity in which the distribution of infections has been kept from the public as if a state secret.

That Ankara was following such a policy become obvious thanks to a video leaked from a prestigious hospital March 18, when the government’s official count of the novel coronavirus pandemic stood at two deaths and 191 infections, a week after it confirmed the first case.

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The video, which was taken secretly and quickly went viral on social media, showed a female physician briefing staff at the Ankara University’s Ibni Sina Hospital about the coronavirus outbreak. Deploring Turkey’s response to the pandemic, the physician, who was later identified as Dr. Gule Cinar, said, “It looks like we’ve got off to a bad start. We don’t know how it will go. We hope we don’t become another Italy.… The cases are now in the thousands, not in the hundreds as they say.”

In addition to putting the cases “in the thousands” while the official tally stood at 191, the doctor cited some of the provinces affected by the outbreak. “Istanbul got off to a very awful start, and Ankara, too, got off to an awful start,” she said. “There are cases in the east, in Van, as well as in Kayseri [in central Turkey].”

So, Cinar’s “situation report” — intended only for hospital staff but made public by an anonymous colleague of hers — was significant in not only contradicting the official number of cases, but also in identifying regions where the outbreak is more prevalent.

The leak of Cinar’s remarks was apparently deemed irksome in undermining the government’s policy of opacity, as Ankara University released an apology signed by Cinar on its Twitter account the following day. The statement referred to COVID-19 as an “impending infection epidemic,” suggesting that the cases in Turkey were not yet on the scale of an epidemic as of March 18. Cinar denied using “any rhetoric that is politically motivated and aimed at provoking [public] indignation,” concluding with an apology “to everybody” for “having caused a negative public perception”.

Read more: al-monitor