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Turkey considers new restrictions as infections rise

New COVID-19 cases and death rates in Turkey have returned to levels not seen since May, prompting officials to consider tighter restrictions following a partial reopening of public schools.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - SEPTEMBER 21: First grade students wearing protective face masks line up to have their temperature taken before entering the school building at the Florya Ugur College on September 21, 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. For the first time since schools closed on March 16, due to the coronavirus outbreak, kindergarten and first grade students were allowed to return for in-person classes at schools across Turkey. The one day a week classes are voluntary and restarted amid strict coronavirus precauti

ISTANBUL — New daily coronavirus cases have remained above 1,500 in Turkey through the month of September, prompting officials to consider tighter restrictions to address the public health crisis that has disrupted lives around the world.

In recent weeks, deaths linked to COVID-19 rose to levels not seen since May in Turkey as the nation’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca noted Tuesday the number of patients in critical condition has surpassed 1,500. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Turkey ranks 19th worldwide in recorded cases, currently at 308,069, and 23rd in virus-linked deaths at 7,711.

The news comes after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday the government may need to reintroduce tighter measures to curb the rise in new COVID-19 cases, which increased gradually over summer months after initial curfews and travel bans were lifted in June.

So far, new restrictions have mainly taken the form of fines on individuals and businesses. About 16,500 people were fined a total of $1.3 million over the last month for violating COVID-19 guidelines in the capital city, according to a statement from the Ankara governor’s office. Starting this week, Erdogan said people found to be breaking COVID-19 rules would also face limits on public services.

“Paying the fines imposed following mask and venue inspections is now mandatory to process any request made to a public institution,” Erdogan said.

Containing the spread of COVID-19 has been further complicated by efforts to address the educational needs of school-aged children, some of whom returned to classrooms for the first time Monday since public schools were closed in March. Preschoolers and first-graders resumed partial face-to-face courses, while older students continue online lessons from home.

Still, distance learning presented its own challenges when the Turkish Education Ministry’s online course portal, known as EBA, crashed on Tuesday. Education officials said Wednesday the crash was the result of a cyber attack, but Turkey’s education and science workers union Egitim Sen published a statement Tuesday linking the system failure to high traffic.

“In the period since March, no solutions have been produced for the basic problems in distance education, the technical infrastructure of EBA has not been strengthened and the problem of access to distance education has not been solved,” Egitim Sen said, adding that people who tested positive for COVID-19 or who had come in contact with patients had attended classes this week in 76 schools across the country.

Many measures have remained in place to reduce the spread of the virus, such as regulations on weddings, restaurants and nightlife venues. Yet members of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) said more severe interventions may be necessary to reduce the current rate of infection.

"It is predicted that the COVID-19 outbreak will accelerate in the coming autumn,” the TTB stated in a report released Monday analyzing the first six months of Turkey’s COVID-19 response. “Simultaneously, the increase in influenza, especially between October and March, may cause difficulties in diagnosis.”

In the report, the TTB said infection rates were rising as a result of an “uncontrolled” reopening process and that COVID-19 was claiming the life of at least one health worker per day in Turkey.

Current virus hotspots in the nation include major cities such as Istanbul and Ankara, while areas of the Turkey’s southeast, which saw dramatic increases in cases last month, have seen a relative decrease in new infection rates, said Dr. Elif Turan, chair of Diyarbakir Medical Chamber.

Turan told Al-Monitor that 350-400 new cases were being recorded per day in Diyarbakir, where she said newly opened intensive care units in regional medical facilities may have helped health workers contain the outbreak.

“I can only speculate, but perhaps summer travels ended and more people are staying in place now that it’s September,” said Turan regarding the drop in the southeast.

Still, she said, the pandemic has taken a toll on medical professionals. Since the nation’s first recorded COVID-19 case on March 11, 791 health workers have tested positive for the virus in Diyarbakir and at least 10 have died after contracting it, Turan said.

As Turkish officials consider new restrictions in the coming weeks, Turan maintained that pandemic councils should include members of non-governmental organizations and medical chamber representatives working at local levels to implement pandemic responses based on regional trends.

“If new restrictions were to be imposed, they should be implemented depending on each region’s needs,” Turan told Al-Monitor. “New restrictions should be evaluated carefully.”

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