Turkey has been praised by foreign observers and the World Health Organization for its speedy and thorough response to the coronavirus pandemic. Yet, the WHO warns, it should not become complacent and must remain vigilant to continue its success
Turkey has been praised by how it has handled the coronavirus pandemic. From the World Health Organisation (WHO) to several international media organisations,the country has been praised for using unorthodox methods to fight the pandemic and to keep the economy vibrant at the same time.
Speaking to TRT World, Dr Irshad Ali Shaikh, Health Security Lead and Interim Head of WHO Turkey, said Turkey has done well but that “we are at a crossroads at a critical juncture” and recommends that the government and Turkish public should “remain vigilant”.
“Looking at Covid-19 numbers in recent days and comparing to where Turkey was in March/April at the height of the pandemic, Turkey has done quite well with over a 75 percent reduction in daily new numbers and daily deaths,” Dr Shaikh says.
“The low number of deaths, especially [among] the elderly, has been very encouraging, too. The leadership from the front by the President, Health Minister engaging with the nation on a regular basis sharing the good, the bad news and all the time alerting that if the caseload did increase significantly they would not hesitate with lockdowns has been trendsetting. Also management of public health risks with livelihoods and economy revitalization has been balanced.”
Pointing out that countries in Europe and the United States have relaxed restrictions, Dr Shaikh says the number of coronavirus cases there are increasing. He warns that people in Turkey too should “continue to follow social distancing rules, wash hands, and wear masks,” or otherwise it is a “recipe for potential disaster.”
Dr Shaikh says Turkey has carried out successful measures to contain the pandemic that other countries can emulate, including “leadership from highest levels in the country and the health ministry, strong culture of disaster and emergency management, readiness and response capacities across institutions, low deaths in elderly (over 65 years) through procedures and practices to keep Covid-19 risks low in elderly facilities, strong Covid-19 testing capacity even before the first imported case in the country, strong disease surveillance, early warning, laboratory testing and surveillance.”
He adds that these were bolstered by “strong contact tracing systems especially capacity to fast turnaround protocols and capacities in place for the measles outbreak in 2019, and case management skills of clinicians treating Covid-19 is praiseworthy and lessons learned in reducing mortality by oxygenation rather than ventilator, effective use prone position and therapeutics.”
Dr Shaikh also mentions that Turkey did very well by “allowing access to Covid-19 healthcare for refugees”, leaving no one behind, and showed global solidarity by “supporting over 130 countries and more than five international organisations” despite dealing with the pandemic at home.
A June 2020 article in the Economist, while critical of the Turkish government in other aspects, almost reluctantly comments “it has handled the pandemic better than many.”
"Rather than place the whole economy in a coma, the authorities ordered the young and the elderly to stay at home and asked everyone else, aside from those in consumer-facing businesses, to show up for work. The biggest cities were placed under a blanket curfew on weekends and holidays. Some domestic flights resumed on June 1st, and cafés, restaurants, beaches and parks reopened, but children and people 65 and over are still not allowed outdoors for more than a few hours a week,” read the Economist article.
“The strategy seems to have worked. The most vulnerable escaped the worst of the pandemic, while those infected, mostly working-age adults, generally recovered. Despite a high number of cases, the death count ... has been low, even given the likelihood of serious underreporting.”
As of August 12, 2020, with the lockdown lifted for some weeks, Turkey has tested a total of 5,454,988 individuals and had 244,392 cases. Of these cases, 5,891 ended in death. Every day the country tests an increasing number of people, and new cases remain steady around 1,000-1,200 while deaths are around twenty patients a day.
Considering the population of Turkey is 83,154,997 as of the end of 2019, the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths are relatively low.
Another recent article, from Sky News, follows tracing teams in Istanbul, who question and try to help remind Covid-19 patients about what they did for the two weeks before they received their diagnosis.
The author, Alex Crawford, compares Turkey to the UK: “The official number of COVID-19 deaths in the country is under 6,000 in a population of 83 million – this compares with the UK's 46,000 deaths, despite having a smaller population of 66 million.”
Crawford writes “much of the country's success in containing the disease has been put down to Turkey’s so-called COVID-19 ‘detectives’.” The contact tracers, along with rigorous treatment in hospitals, have helped prevent many coronavirus patients from spreading the disease or from dying of it.
Dr Shaikh points out that test numbers across Turkey are “very encouraging – we are doing over 60,000 tests per day.” He also mentions that another encouraging feature is the “low test positivity rate (less than 3%) which gives us the good news that the reservoir of circulating virus at population level is very low.”
He then comes with a warning: “But by the same token it is not zero! It only underscores the strong need to be vigilant, compliant with physical distancing, masking, hand washing, staying at home when sick, otherwise the virus can come back roaring!”
Turkey has also received accolades about how it has handled the pandemic in regards to its tourism aspirations. For example, the brand new Istanbul Airport recently received an accreditation from Airports Council International “which demonstrates that they are focused on the health and welfare of travellers, staff and the public,” becoming the first airport in the world to do so.
Istanbul Airport just became the first in the world to be accredited by a new global health programme pic.twitter.com/UGlTajLnbS— TRT World (@trtworld) August 12, 2020
Turkey’s steps to keep coronavirus in check and to ensure the safety of tourists did not go unheeded by those wishing to spend their holidays on its coasts: Germans, Russians and the British began flying into the country.
80 flights from Russia carrying more than 23,000 tourists landed in Antalya, Turkey, after flights resumed between the two countries pic.twitter.com/b5LLRXnbyr— TRT World (@trtworld) August 12, 2020
Dr Shaikh says “we all have to do our part”. He points out that “we may be tired of the virus, but the virus isn’t tired – it’s hiding; it is only waiting to capitalize upon our tiredness and lack of compliance!”
Asked when he foresees a vaccine being ready for the virus, Dr Shaikh says “by early next year, first quarter of 2021.” He warns, however, that it is not a solution that will end all problems. “First, it is likely that the vaccine may not be highly effective,” he cautions. Then there is the fact that “it will take two-three years to vaccinate the globe.”
“With this virus,” Dr Shaikh concludes, “No one is safe till everyone is safe.”