With only hours left to the start of a full lockdown for 17 days to curb the coronavirus pandemic, stress is palpable among millions. Some are seen heading to salons to get their “final” hair cuts before barbers join other businesses in the lengthy shutdown, while others frantically rush to apply for exemption documents so they can continue working in their farms or fields. But the biggest frenzy is possibly in Istanbul, the country’s most populated city with more than 15 million people. The city, which has the highest number of weekly coronavirus cases, witnessed almost an exodus, with everyone looking to reach a secluded vacation resort in the south or paying a visit to their relatives in other cities, a tradition normally reserved for Ramadan Bayram (Eid al-Fitr).
This sudden mobility, on the other hand, worries experts, who fear that people coming together, reuniting with others in different cities, may increase the number of cases again.
Professor Mustafa Necmi Ilhan, a member of the Health Ministry’s Social Sciences Board which advises the government on COVID-19 measures, says the lockdown does not mean a “holiday.” “The way to decrease the number of cases is by not getting together to make a crowd. We should not consider the full lockdown as an opportunity for a vacation or visiting our families in other cities,” he told Demirören News Agency (DHA) Wednesday.
Yet, this lockdown is apparently a time for Istanbulites to start the Bayram holiday earlier. After all, they won’t be able to spend time with their relatives in Anatolian cities during the three-day Bayram over which the shutdown will be in force. Others prefer small towns, villages, summer residences with courtyards, over the suffocating concrete jungle of the city where people can barely step out for a time under the sun without risking curfew violations. As of Wednesday noon, a time when the traffic is usually at its minimum, long traffic queues were evident on the roads leading to other cities, from the west to the east. At the July 15 Democracy Bus Terminal, people’s rush to leave the city was more obvious, as passengers formed queues to buy tickets. The sudden interest drove up the ticket prices while bus companies announced additional trips in the face of the huge demand. “It is like Bayram,” Servet Zengin, a ticket seller, told DHA. This is also the last opportunity for bus companies to make profits as they will be forced to work at half the capacity during the lockdown. On a normal day, some 600 buses operate between Istanbul and other cities but this reached 1,200 as of Wednesday.
One of the most popular destinations among Istanbulites is summer residences in Trakya (Thrace), a region west of the city that is home to three provinces, near the border with Bulgaria and Greece. Roads connecting Istanbul with Edirne, Tekirdağ and Kırklareli were lined with holidaymakers as of Wednesday.
“At this point, we should stay at home, with our family or alone and not consider visiting our relatives. People should remain where they are and comply with rules. We have to reduce mobility and a lockdown will help this. If travels, mobility increase, if we value our personal pleasure above the common public safety, it is likely that we will see a surge in cases even during and after lockdown,” Ilhan said. He said Thursday was chosen as the beginning of lockdown, “not for people to endanger themselves but be prepared.” “Every place with a crowd, mobility is under coronavirus infection risk,” he warned.
He added that the mass mobility is apparent in other areas too, like the Anadolu Highway that connects western provinces to the Anatolian heartland. A busy mountain pass in the northern province of Bolu, had long lines of vehicles, heading from west to north and south, to inner regions of Turkey. In Çanakkale, which follows Istanbul as the province with the highest number of average weekly cases, holidaymakers rushed to Bozcaada, a popular resort island in the northern Aegean Sea. Ferries carried hundreds of vehicles between the mainland and Bozcaada throughout the day while the ferry operator decided to launch additional trips to the island.
Turkey plans to bring the number of daily cases to 5,000 and less, as they were in the early days of the pandemic in March 2020. Ilhan says it would take another two weeks after the lockdown to see whether the new measures are effective in curbing the number of cases. “We are only seeing the results of partial curfews (imposed earlier in April). It has only been a few days since the daily cases reached around 60,000. If people comply with rules during the lockdown, we can expect cases to drop as low as somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000,” he noted. The “rules” that must be followed according to the professor include mandatory protective masks, social distancing and hygiene. If lockdown does not bring down the number of cases, tighter measures could follow, Ilhan warns. “I believe we can achieve this goal during these 17 days. Just do not consider this as a period where we can gather together with others at home,” he said.
Complying with rules is a challenge for a nation that has been confined to its homes for months and is eager to socialize. Professor Levent Akın, a member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, says people go to supermarkets “just for a social outing.” Supermarkets are among the few places open during weekend curfews and will operate for limited hours during the lockdown as well. Chain supermarkets will be closed on Sundays during the lockdown. “You won’t see crowds as you see on Sundays in supermarkets. Obviously, people visit supermarkets not just for shopping for basic needs but to socialize,” he told DHA. He warned people to stay away from supermarkets if they are too crowded. “If you are in an enclosed space, with a large number of people where maintaining social distancing is difficult, there is always a risk. If it's not necessary, do not go to supermarkets and prefer smaller grocery stores,” he recommended.
Akın said Turkey is imposing a “tight” lockdown rather than a "full" lockdown to allow certain businesses to function. “We only barred people from going out if they do not have urgent or daily needs. I think we won’t need a full lockdown if the current lockdown is enforced well and people follow the rules,” he said.
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