The coronavirus pandemic in Turkey has re-erupted in the past month and the country’s tourism sector faces losing tens of billions of summer dollars for the second year running.
Turkey’s health ministry on March 31 said it had officially recorded 39,302 new coronavirus cases in the space of 24 hours—that’s the highest daily level registered since the start of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak a year ago, as was the figure of 37,303 the ministry posted on March 30. The surge has come since the government at the start of March eased measures to curb the pandemic, prematurely in the eyes of critics. On March 22, as infections climbed, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a tightening of measures, including the return of full nationwide weekend lockdowns for the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, which will start in two weeks.
On March 26, the Ankara branch of the Turkish Health and Social Service Labourers’ Union (SES), in a critical response to a stark spike in coronavirus cases in the capital city, was quoted by bianet as saying: "The workload of contact tracing (filiation) has been increasing due to the increasing number of cases and a period when serious problems will reemerge in hospitals is approaching.
“We, the labourers of health and social services, [are having to] fight the exploitation of labour, which leads to our deaths, not against the pandemic; we are burning out, we are outraged."
Some Turkish media reports refer to around 50 doctors and two dozen healthcare workers losing their lives to COVID-19 in Istanbul alone since the start of Turkey’s outbreak.
Consultancy Teneo Intelligence said the sharp rise in infections was clearly putting Turkey’s tourism season at risk.
Tourism 11% of GDP
Turkey, battling a homegrown economic crisis that could soon include another Turkish lira crisis, saw international tourism receipts decline by around $22bn last year and the government was hoping for a big turnaround this year, especially given that in a normal year tourism accounts for around 11% of the country’s $750bn economy and provides around 2.2mn jobs. However, it has been forced to reverse its “normalisation” drive as infections continue to surge.
Teneo said: “The government's handling of the public health crisis is facing mounting criticism from both health experts and the public. Meanwhile, the vaccination rollout continues to be marred by a lack of transparency regarding the supply of vaccine doses and its timeline and over-dependence on a single supplier [China].”
It added: “It is also worth noting that the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (starting on 13 April), traditionally featuring the gathering of friends and families to break the fast, arrives this year at a very challenging point of the pandemic for the country.”
The seven-day rolling average of daily coronavirus cases in Turkey is now around 31,000, or roughly three times higher than it was on March 1.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has blamed COVID-19 mutations—mainly the UK variant as only a few cases of the South African and Brazilian strains have been reported in Turkey so far—for the soaring infection level, suggesting the virus variants now make up some 75% of new cases.
58 of 81 provinces “red”
Out of Turkey's 81 provinces, 58 are now in the "red" or "very high-risk" zone, including the economic hub of Istanbul and Ankara. Some 80% of the country's 84mn people live in these areas. Coastal locations popular with holidaymakers, such as Antalya and the area around Bodrum, are also in the highest risk category.
Overall, Turkey remains largely dependent on China's Sinovac vaccine. Almost 16mn shots have been administered since the country’s vaccine drive was launched in January, official data shows. Over 6.8mn people in Turkey have received two doses.
“However,” said Teneo, “it is unclear how many Sinovac doses Turkey has received. In late February, Koca announced that Turkey would receive 105mn doses by the end of April but did not specify which vaccines would be obtained. Clouding further the picture, the same minister indicated a few days ago that the country would receive 100mn doses by the end of May.”
Reuters reported on March 26 that China was meant to deliver 50mn doses of the Sinovac vaccine to Turkey by the end of February, and the rest by the end of April. However, it said, shipments had been beset by delays and China was still 32mn doses short of meeting the February target.
Erdogan confirmed on March 26 that China had not met the agreed February target for Sinovac deliveries to Turkey, adding that he had raised the delay with the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi during his visit last week to Ankara.