ISTANBUL — Turkish officials introduced strict social distancing measures Wednesday to curb a record spike in COVID-19 infections after the nation’s Health Ministry logged nearly 60,000 new cases Tuesday.
Speaking after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday evening, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the tighter restrictions would be effective for the first two weeks of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, and the measures could be extended if current trends continue.
“Our aim is to achieve a significant drop in case and death numbers,” Erdogan said Tuesday. “If we cannot accomplish the improvement we expect in the table over the course of these two weeks, stricter measures will be inevitable.”
New restrictions include a ban on communal fast-breaking meals during Ramadan as well as more stringent weekday curfews from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., up from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. previously. Until May 17, weekend curfews will be imposed nationwide, most intercity travel will be banned, cafes and restaurants will remain open for takeaway only, fitness centers will be closed, and in-class lessons will be suspended except for preschools and students in the eighth and 12th grades.
The measures come after previous restrictions were loosened on March 1, since which a gradual increase in new infections has seen national daily case rates remain above 50,000 for the last week.
Provinces most impacted in the spring surge were primarily in Turkey’s northeastern Black Sea region, though between April 3-9, the largest increases in new daily case rates were recorded in mostly northwestern Turkish provinces, including Istanbul, Canakkale, Kirklareli and Tekirdag, according to Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca.
On Monday, Koca said 85% of new cases were due to the more infectious UK variant of the coronavirus. He said the nation was facing a “new peak” and urged citizens to reduce social contact and limit unnecessary travel.
“When you look at the data and the diminishing of peoples’ psychological resistance, our country is undergoing the hardest times during the ongoing pandemic,” Koca said Monday.
Koca said Turkey would receive 30 million doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine by June. Using an initial batch of an expected 4.5 million BioNTech doses, Turkish health workers began administering the vaccine on April 2.
The nation’s broader vaccination campaign was launched mid-January and has primarily administered China’s Sinovac vaccine. To date, about 11.5 million people have received the vaccine’s first shot and about 7.7 million have received the second shot, though some research indicates the Sinovac vaccine fosters a lower efficacy rate.
The recent surge has prompted Russian officials to suspend most air travel to Turkey until June 1. Russian tourists make up the largest portion of visitors to Turkey, with 2.13 million Russians visiting the country in 2020 despite the pandemic.
The travel ban could see Turkey lose up to 500,000 tourists, Turkish Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy told broadcaster NTV Wednesday, and the development could put greater stress on the Turkish economy amid the global pandemic slowdown. In response, Ersoy is expected to visit Moscow in the coming days and seek to negotiate a partial or complete reversal of the travel ban.
The spike in Turkey’s COVID-19 infections also suspends in-class learning for most students, requiring children to resume online lessons full-time, though not all have internet access at home. Feray Aytekin Aydogan, a primary school teacher in Istanbul, said about 60% of students at her school attend online lessons using their parents’ mobile phones while others miss classes entirely.
Noting online courses increase inequality in education, Aydogan added Turkish schools reopened in March before most school personnel could be vaccinated, posing health risks to the workforce. Turkey’s Education Labor Union Chair Orhan Yıldırım told Bianet 26 teachers have died from COVID-19 since schools reopened this spring.
“If precautions were taken, those education workers would still be alive,” Aydogan told Al-Monitor.
Aydogan said she and most educators at her school have been vaccinated, but the national vaccination campaign has yet to reach many staff members working in schools, including administrators and support personnel. Turkish Education Minister Ziya Selcuk said on Twitter Wednesday school staff would be prioritized in ongoing vaccination campaigns.
“Since the beginning, it’s been very clear what was needed. It was full closure, but the government moved forward with partial closure,” Aydogan told Al-Monitor. “If this goes on like this, it’s very clear the same issues will resurface again and again.”