Throughout human history, pandemics have caused tremendous loss of life. Only 100 years ago, an outbreak infected about one-third of the world’s population – the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Around 500 million people were stricken, while over 50 million died between 1918 and 1919. In those days, scientists didn’t know that viruses could cause disease. The world didn’t have vaccines or antivirals to help prevent the spread of influenza. Back then, people didn’t even have antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections.
Before COVID-19, a new type of coronavirus, the world struggled with epidemics such as the SARS outbreak from 2002 to 2004, the swine flu in 2009, MERS in 2012 and Ebola in 2014. In the modern era, health care, treatment and developments in the pharmaceutical industry have prevented virus outbreaks. As a matter of fact, among natural diseases that endanger human life, the number of such outbreaks is lower now than in the past. However, if they cannot be stopped, epidemics can lead to mass deaths.
On the other hand, outbreaks such as COVID-19 come with other severe consequences. Around the world, they can trigger political and socioeconomic crises, often followed by major political, social and economic transformations. We do not yet know what kind of consequences COVID-19 will have. It is difficult to predict if the world will be reshaped should the deadly virus continue to take more lives. We don’t know if humanity will fall into an unprecedented global crisis as the outbreak hits the centers of industry, technology and information.
Measures against COVID-19
Let's give credit where credit is due. Turkey has been successful in dealing with COVID-19, at least so far. Even though danger continues to loom, the country still has an advantage. Thanks to a great transformation in health services in the last two decades, following substantial government investments, Turkey was well prepared.
I think Western countries are wondering if they did the right thing by leaving their public services to the private sector for years. This decision has now led to the suffering of thousands of citizens. Today, some European countries, the advocates of liberalism and capitalism, have started to nationalize hospitals and other basic service institutions. Other countries, like Britain, decided to let the new coronavirus spread. In addition, they lack the health care capacity to deal with the outbreak. We will see if they made the right decision as they place their faith in the survival of the fittest. It is dangerous to risk millions based on herd immunity knowing that thousands may die, and it is contradictory to the Western idea of human rights. If this global health crisis deepens, such decisions will be criticized.
From China to the globe
The new type of coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019. In the first half of January, deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, began to be reported. Immediately after, the disease was confirmed in several nearby countries such as Thailand, Japan and South Korea. In the last week of January, the Chinese government decided to quarantine the cities where the virus was detected, starting in Wuhan.
In Europe, COVID-19 was first detected in France at the end of January. The World Health Organization (WHO) then declared an emergency. By early February, new case reports were coming from countries such as Australia, Germany, Canada, Vietnam and the Philippines.
By Feb. 10, the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 was over 40,000, while the death toll reached 1,000, surpassing the loss of lives during the SARS outbreak. In the third week of February, the virus epidemic spread rapidly in Iran, and then Italy. By February's final week, the virus affected a wide area, from South Asia to Northern Europe. Saudi Arabia announced that it suspended Umrah pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca on Feb. 27. Deaths in Iran increased dramatically in the first week of March and in Italy in the second week.
The WHO declared a worldwide coronavirus pandemic on March 11. As of today, the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 has reached over 200,000 and the number of people who have died from this disease has surpassed 8,000. In the meantime, around 80,000 of those diagnosed with the disease have recovered, while the rest remain in treatment.
Turkey’s early measures
According to reports and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s speech on Wednesday, Turkey has closely followed the developments regarding the virus from its outset and has taken rapid measures in response. This article includes a list of Ankara's reactions along their timeline.
At the very beginning, on Jan. 6, Ankara decided to launch an operation center and establish a scientific committee on the novel coronavirus under the Ministry of Health. On Jan. 10, it started to closely monitoring developments in the outbreak. After preparing the "COVİD-19 Guide" on Jan. 14, Ankara started its communications about the disease. By Jan. 20, Turkey had started screening all passengers coming from China's Wuhan, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, America, Russia and Vietnam before they passed through passport control.
Turkey ensured that all preventative measures would be analyzed by the newly established science board, consisting of academics from Turkey's leading universities. All relevant institutions immediately started to implement the recommendations. On Jan. 27, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs started publishing travel warnings. On Feb. 1, with the cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Defense, Ankara brought its citizens in Wuhan, China back to Turkey on a military aircraft. Doctors accompanied passengers on the plane to conduct the initial tests for the virus before their arrival. They were then quarantined for 14 days. None of those passengers had the coronavirus.
For all flights to and from risky areas, Turkey started scanning passengers with thermal cameras and informing them about what to expect after landing. On Feb. 3, Ankara stopped all flights to and from China. It closed all air, land and railway crossings from Iran on Feb. 23. On Feb. 27, Turkey established field hospitals at its border gates with Iran, Iraq and Georgia. On Feb. 29, all passenger traffic between Italy and Turkey was stopped.
On March 2, Ankara decided to provide medical examinations for every citizen returning from Umrah, as well as advice on how to follow the 14-day self-quarantine rule. On March 6, Turkey banned foreign nationals who were in Italy in the last 14 days from entering the country. That same day, it strongly advised home quarantine to all of its citizens returning from Italy for 14 days. On March 10, the minister of health shared that for the first time within the country, a COVID-19 test of a Turkish citizen, who had returned from Europe, was positive.
On March 12, Ankara took further action including the suspension of schools and the transition to distance learning programs, the postponement of public officials’ travels abroad and the playing of sports matches without fans. It retrofitted some technical high schools to be suitable for and capable of producing disinfectants and surgical masks.
On March 13, the number of COVID-19 cases rose to five in Turkey. The same day, following several meetings by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Ankara stopped airline transportation with nine European countries, in addition to Italy. It also restricted visitors to hospitals. It granted 12 days of administrative leave to pregnant women working as public officers, as well as for those on breastfeeding leave, disabled people and staff over 60 years of age. It stopped off-base days for soldiers and temporarily suspended non-urgent trials and other legal processes. All arts and culture events were postponed until the end of April.
Ankara enabled a system for elderly people and those with chronic diseases, who require doctor-approved medications, to get their prescriptions without going to the hospital. It also suspended all national and international events, open and closed meetings, conferences and military exercises through the end of April.
In addition, Turkey has ensured that Turkish exporters are affected less by the measures taken. It has changed the routes of trucks coming to Turkey from Central Asia through Iran, where the epidemic is widespread, to Georgia and Azerbaijan. Ankara has made roll on/roll off transportation (roro) to Italy and France possible without human contact.
In addition to those measures, it has increased price gouging audits and activated criminal sanctions on offenders to protect consumers. Ankara continues to consult with businesspeople in order to decrease the negative effects of the constantly changing situation.
On March 14, a citizen returning from Umrah was diagnosed with COVID-19. On March 15, Turkey started to quarantine all Umrah visitors for 14 days. In the cities of Ankara and Konya, 10,000 Umrah pilgrims have been quarantined. Turkey also temporarily suspended the activities of entertainment venues such as bars, casinos, night clubs, museums and libraries where many people come together.
Also on March 15, with the diagnosis of new cases from Europe and the U.S., the number of COVID-19 patients in Turkey reached 18. Then, on March 16, Ankara decided to put every citizen that traveled from countries whose flights were suspended in quarantine for 14 days. Religious authorities announced that community prayers, including Friday prayers, would not continue in mosques, and recommended praying at home or alone at mosques. This was an important step to protect the demographic that frequent Turkey's mosques, which is part of the highest risk group due to their older average age.
Turkey then decided to temporarily suspend the activities of places such as coffee shops, cafes, cinemas, theaters, concert halls, wedding halls, baths, sports halls, indoor children's playgrounds and more. It increased the number of laboratories with fast COVID-19 test results from four to 16.
On March 16, the Minister of Health announced that the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 rose to 47. Six more countries, including Britain and Saudi Arabia, for a total of 20, were added to the list of banned flights on March 17. The same day, the number of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 increased to 98 and Turkey lost its first patient, an 89-year-old citizen.
'Economic Stability Shield'
On March 18, Erdoğan announced a TL 100 billion ($15.3 billion) economic package intended to protect Turkey from the financial effects of the coronavirus outbreak. “Our economy performed well during the crisis, and now we are introducing the Economic Stability Shield Program to decrease the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our economy,” he said after the latest meeting with his ministers and the leaders of economic and financial institutions.
The package includes the postponement of tax duties, loans and social insurance payments as well as many incentives for Turkish businesses and citizens. There will be a six-month postponement of tax and social insurance payments for all companies from the industries of iron and steel, textile, retail, logistics and transportation, auto, food and drink, as well as cinemas, theaters, hotels and more. The government will also give financial support to export companies.
While the government doubled the state credit guarantee fund to protect private banks from collapse, all financial institutions are asked not to cancel existing loans and to ease the requirements for new loans. Erdoğan also announced a new fund for poor families and several benefits for elderly people. The list goes on and on, so I have to stop listing them here.
On March 18, the number of coronavirus cases in Turkey jumped to 191, as 93 more citizens were diagnosed. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca also confirmed a second death.
“A 61-year-old patient has unfortunately succumbed to the disease. The situation makes it apparent that precautions are imperative to win over this illness,” he said in a tweet.
Pandemic in a globalized world
The Turkish government continues urging the public to stay home. There is no way to stop the coronavirus from coming to Turkey as its citizens are free to live and travel abroad. As Turkey is a part of an interconnected world, and this new health crisis hits at the center of globalization, Turkey cannot avoid new infections or unfortunate deaths. What Turkey can do is continue to stick to its safety measures and encourage the public to remain isolated.
“The staying-home policy could last for three weeks,” Erdoğan said on March 18 during his latest speech, adding that social distancing and personal hygiene are the most effective deterrents against COVID-19. Personal hygiene is a cultural habit in Turkey, so it is not something difficult for Turkish people. These days in Turkey, we are trying to stay at home as much as possible, follow Ankara's recommended measures and help the government and health workers do their jobs, while we watch the terrifying situations in Europe, Iran and the U.S. It is an irony that all of us who quarrel all the time are in this together. Let’s hope that this health crisis ends soon and the world takes lessons from it.