Empty streets, closed shops, faces covered by masks and a multitude of concerned souls – these are a few of the features that have defined the situation in almost all parts of the world for the past few weeks, due to an unexpected viral outbreak that took the globe by storm and led to a domino effect of shutdowns in nearly every aspect of everyday life. Europe, a continent that quickly turned into the epicenter of the pandemic, is scraping through the crisis, as each country is left on its own with its struggles while the European Union fails to come up with a collective response. Still, the Turkish diaspora on the continent holds onto its determination to overcome the coronavirus outbreak by being content with what European states offer. Longing for their homeland, however, brings discouragement.
“Since measures have been taken too late here, compared to Turkey, initially, I had struggled feeling safe, to be honest," said Hatice Meryem Gelgör, a 27-year-old master's student in London.
“Although the numbers are currently rising in Turkey as well, despite all the measures, since my family is there and I put my trust more in the Turkish health care system, I would have wanted to spend this period in my home in Istanbul,” she said.
Gelgör is one of the students abroad that actually had the chance to return to Turkey via multiple flights that were provided by the Turkish government over the past weeks. However, the possibility of catching the virus in crowded areas such as airports and the overall risks of traveling during such a time dissuaded Gelgör from taking that step and has kept her in the United Kingdom, a country that she finds quite lacking when it comes to measures against the novel coronavirus.
“If I, somehow, catch the virus in here, I’m not sure how will I be treated here, in this health system (the National Health Service). If they would not consider my situation as serious; they would probably send me home without any tests so that I can recover by myself,” she said with concern. “I don’t know how can I cope with such a scenario.”
At least 115 Turkish citizens have died from COVID-19 in Europe, as of April 3. The latest of the fatalities came on Wednesday when five Turkish citizens died in Germany, raising the number of Turks killed there to 42.
U.K.'s health system worrying
Apart from the fact that Gelgör has been living in the U.K. for only six months with a student visa and has no citizenship, the main reason Gelgör is skeptical when it comes to the country’s health system is the relative lack of overall measures as well as the constant flow of reports stating the shortage of essential products such as masks and ventilators. The country has become the only one which, at first, decided not to take any measures and to let the virus spread, allowing people to gain immunity against it. However, as the number of cases and deaths increased, the U.K. had to take some measures as well since the lack of precautions led to a massive public reaction. Currently, there are more than 55,000 cases in the U.K. with more than 6,000 deaths, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been criticized for his failure in responding to the pandemic, is infected and in intensive care.
For 30-year-old master's student Abdullah Çelik, these circumstances in the U.K. are more than worrying since he has two children and they, with his Canadian wife, are expecting a third child.
“If I could, I would have returned to Turkey. I would feel safer there,” Çelik said, remembering the circumstances that kept him and his family in the U.K. rather than returning to Turkey.
Studying in Cardiff, Çelik spent a remarkable time in limbo when the U.K. government hesitated to cancel classes, causing him and many other students to remain stuck in the country with ambiguity over their near future.
“They recessed the schools quite late. That’s why international students could not return to their hometowns. For instance, I did not know anything about whether the school will be recessed or the classes would continue,” he recalled, adding that this is why he had to stay in the country.
In Çelik’s opinion, although the recess is finally in effect, the measures of the British government are still far from reassuring.
“For example, the parks were still filled with people over the weekend. Because, when people see the sunshine, they go out,” he said, indicating that due to these instances of apathy, the country is now struggling with numbers so high that they have had to turn the Cardiff Stadium into a makeshift hospital.
Safer the places, safer the people
While the U.K.'s failure to come up with a quick and proper response has raised concerns for the Turkish community there, in other European countries, where measures are relatively more strict, there is a greater sense of trust. Nevertheless, the longing for their homeland remains the same.
“People here do whatever the government says. People rarely leave their houses although the markets and post offices are still operating. You can go out only if you meet one of the following conditions of going to work, helping someone or being ill,” said Muhammed Ali Uçar, a 32-year-old doing his Ph.D. at the University of Vienna.
The Austrian government’s measures and regular reports on the developments regarding the outbreak provide a sense of security to Uçar, although he believes the actual normalization of life will not be possible before September.
“Although I have lived for seven years here, I do not have Austrian citizenship. Still, I stayed here (during the pandemic). Not because I have concerns about Turkey, but because the coronavirus hit Austria earlier than Turkey, so I thought that it would come to an end here earlier as well,” he said.
Currently, in Austria, there are more than 12,000 cases and 273 deaths. According to the Austrian government’s plan, although it is now certain that schools and universities will not be re-opened for this semester, small businesses, as well as shops that sell construction and gardening products, will open April 14. While the partial curfew on going out is expected to be extended through April, shopping malls and hairdressers will be able to re-open as of May 1. As of mid-May, hotels will be re-opened as well, though no collective activities, such as concerts, will be available until June.
“(Austrian Chancellor Sebastian) Kurz said that normalization will not be possible from one day to another. For instance, shopping malls will soon be open. However, I personally would not go there. People expect true normalization to return in September,” Uçar highlighted.
There is hope for Italy
As many Turks have the opportunity to isolate themselves and avoid going to public places during the outbreak, others, such as Barış Seçkin, Anadolu Agency's (AA) reporter in Rome, continue to go out whenever their profession requires and report the developments of locked-down Italy. For Seçkin, although Italy may have been late in taking the necessary measures at the time, and consequently has witnessed some of the highest rates of infection and death, the current precautions are actually working since they are quite strict.
"There was a Turkish doctor here who also got infected. He once told me that in his opinion, Italy's measures were taken late and could not catch up with the spreading speed of the virus. I agree with him. It has been a bitter lesson for both Italians and people who live in Italy," Seçkin said.
Still, in his opinion, the late-coming measures will eventually pay off since, after the government shut down everything, people finally started to realize the gravity of the situation.
Italy is one of the countries with the largest elderly population in the world. There are more than 20,000 people above the age of 100 in the country. With such a demographic structure, Italy's fight against the coronavirus continues with struggles. Currently, there are more than 135,000 confirmed cases with more than 17,000 deaths, the highest death toll since World War II. According to Italian officials, the quarantine that was declared a month ago will continue until April 13; however, as Seçkin reports, the main consensus is that the end of the quarantine does not mean a complete normalization and such a thing can only be possible gradually, starting from May.
Regarding returning to Turkey, Seçkin said that the concerns that he would pose a threat to his family as a person traveling from Italy prompted him to stay in Italy rather than taking that risk.
"I still think about that from time to time. My parents are both doctors. Since this is an infectious disease, I couldn't take the risk of possibly harming them," he emphasized.
"I would, of course, love to return to Turkey," Seçkin said, "but I couldn't take that risk."
A pause in social life is not the only effect of the coronavirus on everyday life. In Italy, people no longer go out unless it is necessary. Even when going to the grocery store, Seçkin said people try to go to at times when the queue will be shorter, and they wear masks and gloves. Having a special permit in his hands, Seçkin continues to cover the virus-hit country.
"At the beginning of the quarantine, the police officers were allowing us to go out and take a breath. Now, they stop people and question them, asking for a permission document with a reasonable cause. However, since I am a journalist, I get to be more flexible," he highlighted.
Some of his latest works are the coverage of last week's humanitarian aid to Italy from Turkey and the evacuation of Turkish students back to Turkey.
Germany has its issues, but also ensuring premises
Based on data compiled from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Turkish European Foundation for Education and Scientific Studies (TAVAK) and the Turkish Employment Agency (IŞKUR), a 2018 study states that of 6 million Turkish citizens living abroad, about 5 million live in Europe. Likewise, most of the Turkish citizens participating in the workforce were documented as residing on the European continent. In 2018, 1.39 million Turkish citizens were reported working in Europe.
Despite the fact that there is a vast Turkish population throughout Europe, Germany stands out as the country with the most Turkish people, who make up the largest minority in the country. About 1.63 million Turkish citizens live in Germany, with 544,382 actively employed.
Germany received an influx of "guest workers" in the post-World War II period as the European country tapped into the foreign workforce for rebuilding efforts and improving industrialization. Throughout the 1960s, Turkey signed workforce agreements with Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Australia. The migration of workers continued well into the first half of the 1970s.
Born in Germany's Wuppertal province, 31-year-old Kazım Mollamehmetoğlu is one of the children of those early Turkish migrants in the country.
"Generally, Sundays are very quiet in Europe. The current situation is worse than a Sunday night," Mollamehmetoğlu said, describing the overall atmosphere in virus-hit Germany.
"Unfortunately, sufficient measures had not been taken when the virus first started to spread. For instance, there were still flights with Iran, Spain and China. The arrivals were not being checked," he said. Mollamehmetoğlu continued by noting that there have been serious problems even after measures were imposed, including the slow process of virus tests that take up to five days.
He criticized the long waiting period for the tests, saying that it endangers the lives of people living around you as five days is a long period.
Meanwhile, Mollamehmetoğlu, as someone who works in the automobile industry, says he is content with the economic support policies of Germany.
Lockdown measures are in place across Germany, preventing people from leaving their homes except for essential trips, while most shops, restaurants and bars are closed. Currently, there are more than 107,000 confirmed cases in the country, with more than 2,000 deaths.
For 51-year-old machine engineer Oğuz Üçüncü, the "relieving" economic investments of the German government in this period are quite interesting since it has shown that health is being prioritized over economic improvement.
"Yet," he said, "I'm not sure if we would be able to be this optimistic once the recession starts."
Born and raised in Germany, Üçüncü expressed that despite the initial irresponsibility, as the numbers escalated quickly, Germany has taken "clever" measures, such as banning the gathering of more than two people rather than a total curfew, which is more "applicable to everyday life practices."
Optimism difficult to achieve for health workers
For a 29-year-old Turkish doctor who is working in Germany, however, that optimism is already lost.
"I wish there was a curfew," said the young doctor, who wished to remain anonymous. "I still see people going around when I look outside. A curfew might have stopped the virus from spreading so fast."
Working at the internal medicine department, the doctor expressed that although her hospital, which is located in Baden-Württemberg province, has prepared against the pandemic "quite well," since there are so many patients, it is still a very busy work environment that has the potential of endangering the health workers' lives.
"I don't believe that we are very well-protected. I mean, we have masks that should not be used for more than 12 hours normally. But they told us to use it for three or four days, which would be ineffective at that point. They regularly warn us that these products may finish soon," she said, adding that Germany provided 10,000 ventilators as soon as the outbreak emerged, which is a major plus that "probably enabled numbers to be low in here compared to many other countries."
Stating that she has felt quite concerned especially the first few weeks of the outbreak as a doctor, she expressed that they are being informed that if the virus spread would not peak over the next week, it would not peak again.
"But I am not sure how true it is. Since I have regular contact with the patients, it's not easy for me to approach the incident optimistically," she said.
Psychological difficulties facing people
When it comes to her everyday practices, the doctor emphasized that since the hospital takes all of her time, no sense of normal life is left in her.
"I'm not sure how everyday life works for the people right now," the doctor stated.
For Mollamehmetoğlu, the biggest problem in the everyday life of the coronavirus days is the psychological pressure that is caused by the lack of social life. For Üçüncü, however, although there are not major things that shake the day to day life at its roots, the fact that the mosques, which are one of the main socializing locations for Muslims, are being shut down, is very hard to "get used to."
Seçkin, on the other hand, indicates that he is currently living in complete social isolation in Italy, adding that he only makes exceptions for a small circle of three or four friends that he refers to as his "Turkish solidarity group," who support each other during these days.
In Gelgör's opinion, London is no longer a recognizable place.
"It's like a completely different city," she said, recalling that when she first moved to the city, she was never at home, always exploring libraries, museums, parks and coffee shops.
"Now," she continued, "all of these places are shut down. I have to admit, I have not been affected by the virus physically, but it hit me hard psychologically."
As far as Çelik is concerned, everyday life's new practices, such as working remotely, are more bearable. However, the real worry is his wife's pregnancy.
"My wife will go into labor in a month and she has to go to the hospital. What will happen then?" he asked, as a wave of concern grasped his voice.