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Turkey's plans to mandate PCR tests for education, entertainment spark backlash

Voices from both conservatives and liberals rise as the Turkish government slaps obligatory PCR tests on teachers and school staff to allay fears of a new wave of COVID-19 as schools resume in-person education.
A woman walks past a tourist shop promoting PCR tests during a three week nationwide coronavirus lockdown on May 5, 2021 in Istanbul, Turkey.

Ankara’s requirement that unvaccinated Turks present a negative PCR test for COVID-19 to attend public events and schools has sparked angry reactions from the country’s teachers, who denounced the move as both useless and a violation of their rights.

A conservative labor union urged its members to engage in civil disobedience after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Aug. 19 that members of the education sector would have to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or proof of recovery from the virus, or undergo regular PCR tests as schools resume in-person education on Sept. 6.

Employees union Maarif-Sen announced Saturday they will start a legal process to annul the new regulations on mandatory PCR tests. “While we go on with the legal process, we call [on] all our members to [engage in] civil disobedience against PCR tests,” the statement said, promising to provide legal support to those who faced pressure at work to take the test.

“We are not anti-vaxxers, and a good many of our members are vaccinated already,” Maarif Sen’s deputy chair Nazmi Berat Kocer told Al-Monitor. “We are against the PCR tests twice a week because we do not believe it would achieve anything except put an additional burden on teachers. There are many problems here as schools start; classes are far too crowded, and we are not allowed to have some sort of hybrid system that would divide them up. There are no additional state subsidies nor personnel available in public schools to ensure hygiene rules can be properly implemented.”

So far, Turkey has administered at least 88,760,525 doses of COVID vaccines, first using Chinese-made Sinovac and then the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The country has also provided third and fourth booster shots. The Health Ministry says half the adult population is vaccinated. In the second half of August, Ankara lowered the COVID-19 vaccine eligibility age to 15 and said children 12 and older with chronic illnesses would also be vaccinated ahead of the new school year.

Left-leaning Egitim-Sen also took a stance against mandatory PCR tests, saying the government should “do its duty” in providing vaccination for all members of the education sector but force neither vaccination nor tests on them. “Come on, colleagues. Let’s get vaccinated,” said Nejla Kurul, chair of the labor union. Turk Egitim-Sen, another teacher’s labor union, adopted a similar line against obligatory tests but urged the government to concentrate on conditions of schools once they opened, “We need 30-minute classes, longer breaks that would enable classrooms to be aired, health personnel and kits in schools, as well as additional budget for schools for hygiene measures,” its statement said.

Earlier this summer, Ziya Selcuk handed in his resignation as education minister allegedly over disagreements with the Presidential Palace. Selcuk, a technocrat who in the past successfully negotiated with the European Union the chapter on Science and Research, the only chapter concluded in the dormant EU membership negotiations, was angered over lack of funds to prepare schools for reopening, ministry bureaucrats close to the former minister told Al-Monitor.

Other objections to obligatory tests — and to the government’s plans to vaccinate students ahead of September — came from Abdurrahman Dilipak, an arch-conservative columnist who had proposed hemp oil as a remedy to COVID-19 when the pandemic took hold in 2020. Dilipak and his 5G Virus News Platform, some of whose members believe COVID-19 jabs aim to alter human DNA, invited all political parties, associations and “people of all views” to a demonstration on Sept. 11 at Maltepe Mosque in Istanbul.

Unlike the education sector, the entertainment sector had a more positive outlook toward the president’s announcement that proof of vaccination and PCR tests would be required for concerts, cinemas, theaters, sporting events and other public events. Struggling with repetitive closures in the last two years, the members of the entertainment industry believe many of the artists, particularly musicians who freelance, cannot afford a new lockdown.

“I think this will make people more comfortable going to the events, be it indoors or large outdoor gatherings,” said Cagil Ozdemir, co-founder of the Bozcaada Jazz Festival, which held its fifth edition on Aug. 20-22 on a much smaller scale than the previous one in 2019.

Kaya Demirer, chair of the Tourism Restaurant Investors and Gastronomy Enterprises Association, urged the government in July to pass regulation that would only allow people who have received two vaccine doses into restaurants, cafes, indoor sports facilities, movie theaters and concerts starting Sept. 1. “If we do not take this precaution, then we would end up closing again, which is something the sector cannot stand,” he said.

Ankara is keen to reinvigorate its tourism industry and assure the arrival of foreign tourists in the fall. Germany removed Turkey from its list of high-risk COVID-19 countries in June, and Ankara hopes the United Kingdom, which sends more than 2 million tourists to the southern coasts of Turkey every year, will put Turkey as amber in its traffic light system after its assessment in early September. This means fully vaccinated holidaymakers and anyone under 18 would be able to return to the UK without quarantining.

“Turkey deserves to be [on the] amber list as it has one of the best COVID-19 safety measures in place, especially in hotels and other tourism areas,” Paul Charles, founder of the PC Agency travel consultancy, told The Sunday Times.

The Health Ministry’s COVID-19 map shows all coastal tourist areas on the Aegean and Mediterranean seas as blue, meaning more than 75% of the local population has received at least one vaccine dose. New COVID-19 cases surged in mid-August but have started receding, with around 18,622 cases reported on Aug. 22.

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