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Turkish health experts warn new COVID-19 measures don’t go far enough

The Turkish government has introduced partial curfews and other measures to curbing rising COVID-19 cases in the country, while health experts call for a full lockdown and more transparency in pandemic data.
A man takes the temperature of worshippers ahead of the Friday prayer at Kocatepe Mosque on August 7, 2020, amid the crisis linked with the Covid-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Adem ALTAN / AFP) (Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images)

ISTANBUL — In recent weeks, Turkey has seen a resurgence of new COVID-19 cases and death rates not seen since the outbreak first peaked in April. In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced new restrictions Tuesday aimed at stemming the spread of the disease.

Starting Friday evening, the Turkish government will impose partial weekend curfews between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. on most citizens, while people under 20 and over 65 will be allowed outdoors during specific hours on weekdays.

Cinemas and schools will also be closed for the rest of the year, with students resuming online education after face-to-face instruction for most grade levels resumed briefly this fall. Shopping malls and hair salons will operate on reduced hours while restaurants and cafes will offer only takeaway and delivery services.

Employees in specific sectors such as manufacturing and agriculture will continue working through the curfews “in a way that will not disrupt supply and production chains,” Erdogan said after a cabinet meeting Tuesday, adding stricter measures would be imposed if rising infection trends continue.

The measures come after new COVID-19 cases rose in recent weeks with the onset of cold weather. Though health experts have been calling for new restrictions to curb the resurgence of the pandemic, some say the latest restrictions don’t go far enough.

Dr. Sebnem Korur Fincanci, chair of the executive committee of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) and internationally recognized forensics expert, said a full nationwide lockdown of 14 to 28 days is necessary to adequately address COVID-19 trends in Turkey.

“It’s not possible to cope with the pandemic without a lockdown on the manufacturing sector and production workers,” Korur Fincanci told Al-Monitor. “We also don’t see a sufficient response without restrictions on intercity travel.”

She said more limits were needed on long-distance and cross-border travel while proposing citizens be encouraged to increase physical activity within their immediate surroundings, such as taking neighborhood walks and visiting parks, as obesity appears to be among the main risk factors for the disease.

The new guidelines come after the Turkish Health Ministry’s coronavirus scientific advisory board recommended stricter measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 during a meeting Monday evening.

Though the Health Ministry does not publish the total number of new daily coronavirus cases, listing only symptomatic cases, official figures show sharp increases in infection rates in October and November, with 3,819 new symptomatic patients and 103 deaths recorded on Tuesday.

“We managed to put the outbreak under control during the first wave of the outbreak between March and May,” Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said in a statement Monday. “However, in recent months, we have witnessed a substantial increase in the number of cases and deaths, a trend reflected globally.”

The new measures come after restrictions were introduced earlier this month making face masks mandatory in all public places and requiring restaurants, bars and most gathering spaces to close by 10 p.m.

A smoking ban was imposed last week in crowded outdoor areas on the recommendation of a coronavirus board member, who said not only do people remove their masks to smoke, but smoking has also been found to spread the virus. Violators of the smoking ban will be fined 900 Turkish liras ($116).

Ahead of the curfews, municipal governments in the nation’s largest cities also moved to implement localized measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. On Tuesday, officials in Istanbul announced the closure of city-run fitness centers and swimming pools as well as cultural centers, theaters and indoor museums, while also suspending art and vocational training courses.

With the latest round of COVID-19 measures, sporting events will continue to be held, though without spectators. On Tuesday, the TTB published a list of additional measures to stem COVID-19 rates, including widespread distribution of seasonal influenza vaccines, financial support for people unable to work during the pandemic and more transparent data on pandemic trends from the Health Ministry.

Dr. Vedat Bulut, secretary general of the TTB’s executive committee, said the true rate of new daily COVID-19 infections could be up to 10 times higher than Health Ministry data and partial curfews would not be effective in containing further increases.

“Imposing partial curfews for a few hours a day is not an approach based on scientific evidence,” Bulut told Al-Monitor. He added, “Another problem is theaters and cinemas are closed, but there are no restrictions on mosques. People are still praying in crowded areas.”

Bulut highlighted differences in infection rates between Portugal and Spain this spring. He said rates decreased sharply in Portugal, where citizens followed government guidelines and avoided church services, while Spain saw higher case numbers as people continued to gather in places of worship.

Since the first reported case of COVID-19 in Turkey this March, the Health Ministry has reported about 420,00 cases and roughly 11,700 virus-linked deaths.