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For Erdogan’s government, it’s the economy first in COVID-19 crisis

Wary of paralyzing its entire economy, Turkey’s government has balked at drastic measures against the coronavirus outbreak in Istanbul, the country’s economic powerhouse and now the epicenter of the pandemic.

Nearly a month after Turkey confirmed its first COVID-19 case, the government’s policy against the pandemic has crystallized enough to bring into relief its main priority — to salvage the economy and, by extension, its own political future.

A string of developments last week offered a perfect illustration of how the government approaches the pandemic, which has caused 725 deaths and more than 34,000 confirmed infections since Turkey reported its first case March 11. On the evening of April 3, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a couple of new measures to contain the contagion. First, private vehicles were banned from exiting and entering 31 provinces, many of which have big cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Adana. Second, an existing curfew drastically limiting the movements of those over the age of 65 was extended to young people under 20. Both restrictions were to take effect at midnight.

On the morning of April 5, the Interior Ministry issued a supplementary circular, relaxing the curfew for those younger than 20. Accordingly, public- and private-sector employees and agricultural workers between the ages of 18 and 20 were exempted from the curfew.

The government’s backtracking in less than 48 hours is a case in point, revealing how Erdogan’s government manages the COVID-19 crisis.

The backpedaling shows the government lacks the means to cover the material cost of a temporary stay-home restriction for young people in the 18-20 age group who need to continue working to make a living and support families. Allocating funds for such a program of emergency welfare support is not something Ankara can prioritize. The government lacks the financial strength to even partially compensate for the cost of job loss for young adults to keep them at home. It cannot bring itself to tell them, “I need you to stay home for a while to stop the contagion, but I cannot give you any money.”

This is because Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) cannot afford to further deepen voter discontent, fueled chiefly by economic crisis and stagnation since a severe currency shock in 2018. Confining needy people to their homes would amount to condemning them to starvation, and the lightest consequences of ensuing frustration and anger in the party’s base would be rising support for the two new opposition parties that AKP defectors have formed and voter quest for an alternative government.

Hence, Erdogan’s government is stuck in a dilemma between the indispensable need to keep the wheels of the economy turning, albeit in slow mode, and the impossible goal of efficiently tackling the pandemic with partial or gradual measures. As the lifting of the curfew for young workers shows, the government has leaned on partial measures to tackle the outbreak, for it believes it has no other way to hedge its political future. Sacrificing an already crisis-hit economy to the fight against the pandemic is not something the hard-pressed government is willing to do. Obviously, this ambivalent approach has had a highly dangerous consequence for Turkey, namely a failure to enact timely and efficient measures to contain the outbreak.

To better understand what this means on the ground, Istanbul — the hotbed of the outbreak in the country — was still not under a full quarantine April 4, when the number of Turkey’s COVID-19 fatalities reached 501, whereas Italy and Spain, the epicenters of the pandemic in Europe, imposed nationwide lockdowns after their death tolls topped 400 and 150 respectively.

By revising the curfew decision in less than 48 hours, Ankara has provided ample clues on how it is failing to manage the crisis. Had decision-making for the pandemic involved decent coordination, participation and interaction, the impact of a curfew on those younger than 20 would have been thoroughly assessed in advance and a measure announced by the president himself wouldn’t have lost relevance in less than two days.

Because its response to the pandemic is taking shape under the strain of economic and political concerns, Ankara has pursued a policy of adjustable, partial strictness instead of enforcing comprehensive, definitive and stringent measures in a timely manner. 

The government’s flawed crisis management rests on four pillars that are equally significant and thus complement each other.

The first is the “management of irresponsibility.” While shying away from drastic, compulsory quarantine measures, the government wants to evade accountability for the ill consequences its policy creates, seeking to share the responsibility with the public. As Erdogan succinctly put it April 1, “No further measures will be needed if everyone keeps themselves in voluntary quarantine.”

So, the president was conceding that quarantine was indispensable but the state would not use its legal powers to enforce such measures; hence, he was kindly asking citizens to stay in “voluntary quarantine.” According to this logic, tougher measures would follow only after millions of people — unable to go into “voluntary quarantine” because they need to go to work to feed themselves — contract and spread the disease, and, if ultimately forced into home confinement, the blame for the misery they would face would be on themselves and not the government. 

Manifestations of this mindset go as far as to outright blaming of citizens. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu grumbled in a March 30 interview that “people moving from Istanbul to the countryside have begun to spread the virus,” urging Istanbulites to “not go anywhere and stay still.” Though the government failed to enforce timely measures to prevent such movements, the minister chose to accuse citizens, seeking to deflect responsibility from the government.

The same attitude extends to the pro-government media. In a front page headline March 31, for instance, Yeni Safak blamed “roaming” citizens, heedless of government calls, for spreading the coronavirus to rural areas. “The outbreak in villages stems from citizens from big cities such as Istanbul, who disobey warnings to stay home and go to their native villages for funerals … or to visit relatives.”

Another leg of the government’s flawed crisis management is politicization, the most striking example of which came last week as the government banned fund-raising campaigns by 11 local administrations run by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), including in Turkey’s three largest cities — Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. The campaigns, which the government claimed were unlawful, aimed to raise funds to support residents left jobless or forced out of business by the pandemic.

The timing of the March 31 decision was remarkable. The day before, Erdogan had launched his own “national solidarity campaign,” stressing from his Twitter account that “the state should lead the assistance efforts for the needy.” He became the first donor, giving seven months of his salary.

By barring CHP mayors from collecting donations for the needy, Erdogan’s government aims to thwart any bonds the main opposition could foster with the AKP grassroots. Moreover, by monopolizing fundraising, the government transforms social solidarity against the pandemic into another realm of political discrimination and polarization, and thus raises fresh barriers to solidarity in a country where mistrust of various institutions is already running deep for the very same reasons.

The third pillar of Ankara’s crisis management is a form of a “defense mechanism,” whereby government members propagate a narrative that other countries affected by the pandemic are much worse off than Turkey. In his March 30 address to the nation, for instance, Erdogan said the virus had been brought to Turkey “essentially by people coming from Europe and the United States,” adding that “those countries have obviously failed in [properly] diagnosing and treating cases.” According to Erdogan, “Turkey, in comparison to Europe and the United States, is one of the countries that are closest to overcoming the spread of this disease.”

Finally, the fourth pillar is the denial of transparency. Ankara’s policy of opacity, including a restricted release of data, allows officials to conceal the actual dimensions of the pandemic and thus eases public pressure on the government regarding the measures it is expected to take.

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