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Is Turkey ready for social distancing?

Turkey’s technological infrastructure is equipped to support the country through the pandemic, but the public lacks awareness of social distancing.
People wear protective face masks due to coronavirus concerns in Istanbul, Turkey March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas - RC27LF997IWS

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the concept of social distancing has gained popularity, bringing with it two important questions: Do countries have sufficient technological infrastructure to implement the concept? And how many people can access that technology? Turkey, for its part, has the technological infrastructure to enforce social distancing, but the public needs to be educated on how to effectively use the internet and online services.

The number of coronavirus cases in Turkey will soon be in the thousands, even as the government released figures slowly and in a controlled manner in a bid to acclimatize the public mood. The death toll from COVID-19 is at three, and the total confirmed cases is at 191 as of March 19.

Authorities worldwide are urging people to practice social distancing to contain the pandemic. The strategy dictates two priorities: First, tools of mass communication and technological infrastructure must be used to convince people to stay home. People should be encouraged to and educated on how to meet their needs via internet. Second, everyone’s access to such technologies must be ensured without additional personal costs.

COVID-19 has spread to 162 countries, killing more than 7,000 as of mid-March, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Reported cases are inspected to increase, as the severity of the crisis forces governments to be more transparent on how they address the outbreak. Casualties aside, financial losses are another top agenda item of the international community. The United Nations has listed three variables that will shape the depth of the global financial crisis: the speed and magnitude of the outbreak; the time needed to develop a vaccine; and policymakers’ swift responses to unfolding developments. Unfortunately, aside from a drop in the number of new infections in China, none of these fronts seem promising.

Yet authorities are still hopeful. “We cannot say this loudly enough or clearly enough or often enough: All countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director of the WHO, said March 11.

Turkey, like many other countries, is trying to enforce the practice of social distancing by canceling large gatherings and sports competitions, and closing cafes and pubs. The goal is to contain the spread of the virus. Everybody who leaves their house, even if they are healthy, has the potential to speed up the spread of the virus, as research shows that the rate of transmission through asymptomatic carriers is higher for COVID-19 than earlier forms of coronaviruses.

Luckily, today's technology makes social distancing a real possibility for a large portion of Turkey’s population, if not everyone. A Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK) survey on home access to information technologies in 2019 found that 73.3% of individuals aged between 16-74 use the internet. On a household basis, the rate rises to 88.3%. These figures indicate that education, work and other activities can be done remotely for 88% of the population, with only 12% of households lacking an internet connection.

Turkey's white-collar sector, in particular, has the potential to work remotely. At the end of 2019, some 27 million are employed in Turkey, with 15.5 million working in the service sector. More than half of those workers could be working remotely, in sectors such as finance, communications, real estate, public administration, education, health, culture and the arts. Furthermore, it is also possible that administrative work in the retail, industrial and construction sectors could be shifted to remote work.

Turkey is also trying out remote education for primary, secondary and college students, as all schools were closed as part of containment efforts.

When it comes to the delivery of goods and services to homes — a pillar of social distancing — some 34% of individuals aged between 16-74 use the internet to buy goods and services, according to the TUIK survey. The rate could be enhanced through education and awareness campaigns.

The government could also extend the services it provides online, through its official "e-system" portal. More than 51% of the population already use the portal to access public services. For example, e-system could be used for online trials and virtual meetings between inmates and their family members.

The private sector, for its part, could improve its business models to extend the scale of online deliveries to households.

In sum, Turkey's technological infrastructure could support the country through the pandemic by minimizing the virus' impact. Yet Turks need more education and encouragement on accessing such services, especially among Turks who can access the technology but don't take full advantage of it.

Meanwhile, some 12% of households in Turkey lack an internet connection, according to TUIK. Equipping households with internet has emerged as a public responsibility under these extraordinary circumstances.