Worsening coronavirus crisis seen as Turkey’s self-inflicted injury

Worsening coronavirus crisis seen as Turkey’s self-inflicted injury
A dedicated area of a cemetery that the government has opened for coronavirus cases at Beykoz, in Istanbul. Statistical forecasts suggest that Turkey risks a coronavirus outbreak on the same scale as Italy. (AFP)
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Updated 31 March 2020

Worsening coronavirus crisis seen as Turkey’s self-inflicted injury

Worsening coronavirus crisis seen as Turkey’s self-inflicted injury
  • Govt. accused of wasting time before taking measures to halt transmission of deadly infection
  • Outbreak raises pressure on economy burdened with weak currency and high debt levels

ANKARA: Since January, as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections seeped out of China’s borders and into the world at large, many countries were caught napping.

A few among them chose a policy of denial until the facts could no longer be concealed. Turkey is a tragic case in point.

To be sure, in recent weeks the government has adopted sweeping measures aimed at halting the transmission of the virus.

It has shut restaurants and schools, halted prayers in mosques, suspended sporting activities, restricted intercity bus travel and stopped all international flights to or from Turkey.

Mass disinfection has been carried out in public spaces in cities across the country.

Yet those steps may prove to be no substitute for being vigilant and cautious from the beginning.

According to Berk Esen, an international relations professor at Ankara’s Bilkent University, Turkey’s delay in announcing its first case gave people the false hope that it could avoid the terrible fate of Italy and Spain.

Now, with the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases crossing the 9,000 mark, Turkey has surpassed many other countries in its rate of increase in infections.

As of Monday, the death toll stood at 131 with 105 recoveries.

“After the first case was pronounced on March 11, the crisis escalated rather quickly. The reaction of the government to the pandemic has been marked by delay,” Esen said.

“Although closing down schools was the correct decision, the government failed to quarantine thousands of visitors coming from COVID-19-infected countries.”

This public health emergency has put Turkey’s economic policies and system of governance to the test. But that is not all.

The forethought and strategy behind its involvement in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya are likewise being called into question.

The Turkish Defense Ministry says no COVID-19 cases have been reported among Turkish troops in Iraq and Syria.

Still, the government’s domestic as well international standing could suffer if it orders the sudden withdrawal of forces in response to concerns about their wellbeing.

Many experts point to the presence of ‘security contractors’ who operate in groups while assisting Turkish forces carry out cross-border operations.

Under the conditions, these contractors might find it difficult to take basic WHO-recommended precautions such as social distancing, effective handwashing and staying at home.

Overcrowding is known to be a common feature of camps in Syria, especially in northern Aleppo and Afrin, where Turkish forces are active.

“The crisis may halt Turkey’s overseas operations in Syria and Libya for now. The parties to the conflict all need to address the devastating impact of the pandemic on their populations,” Esen said.

From defense to the economy, there is no denying that Turkey faces difficult choices.

The outbreak came at a time when the country was weighed down by economic weaknesses including a vulnerable currency and very high levels of corporate and private debt.

Turkish government debt alone was expected to reach 36.6 percent of the GDP by the end of 2020.

With some experts now seeing a looming global recession, Turkey’s central bank has decided to reduce its benchmark interest rate by one percentage point.

The move is one of many precautionary measures taken by the bank to mitigate the worst impact of the global pandemic on Turkey’s $750 billion economy.

According to Nigel Rendell, director at Medley Global Advisers LLC in London, the Turkish economy is vulnerable not just to the COVID-19 crisis but also to any flight of investors from higher-risk markets.

“In recent weeks, the Turkish lira (TRY) has held up reasonably well compared with some other emerging market currencies, but it seems to have been heavily supported by central bank intervention and the actions of state banks, who have been ordered to sell dollars and buy TRY,” he told Arab News.




Some think the government is taking a “herd immunity” approach. (AFP)

According to Rendell, official interest rates have fallen significantly, to below 10 percent, and now provide little protection to those holding TRY versus some safer currencies.

“We estimate that the central bank has depleted its dollar reserves significantly and has little firepower to protect the TRY further should there be another significant sell-off,” he said.

“The risk, therefore, is that the exchange rate heads towards 7.00/dollar, and potentially lower, in the coming weeks.”

To its credit, Turkey recently announced a $5.4 billion stimulus package, but many economists see it as favoring employers rather than helping ordinary households cope with the coronavirus blow.

Many companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, are expected to go bankrupt and default on loan payments in the coming days.

The dark specter of mass unemployment looms over Turkey’s economic horizon.

The fear of the coronavirus situation being made worse by the flow of people has forced Turkey to seal its land borders with Iran and Iraq and halt flights to and from China, Italy and South Korea.

This in turn has affected the country’s vital tourism sector and export-based industries, whose importance in lifting Turkey from heavy indebtedness following previous economic crises cannot be overstated.

In 2018 Turkey, a major transit hub between Europe, Asia and Africa, hosted 51.8 million tourists, who brought $34.5 billion in revenue.

This year, as the coronavirus pandemic tightens its grip on large parts of the world, such a figure looks to be more mirage than reality.

Meanwhile, trade with Europe, Turkey’s main trading partner, is likely to suffer while its budget deficit (which stood at $21.77 billion last year) can only widen further.

Against this backdrop of gathering storm clouds, it is no surprise that cracks have begun to appear in the government.

On Friday night, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the rare step of dismissing minister Cahit Turhan, who held the transport and infrastructure portfolio.

Turhan was removed from his post with a presidential decree, but no reason was given.

The dismissal came soon after a controversial tender for the Istanbul Canal project was floated by the transport ministry.

The project involves building a huge artificial canal on the edge of Istanbul.

The timing of the tender was seen by many Turks as unseemly, conveying the impression that launching the mega-project, not protecting people from the coronavirus outbreak, was the government’s priority.

Esen thinks the Turkish government is pursuing in all but name the ‘herd immunity’ strategy that the Netherlands and UK were toying with until last week.

In the event, statistical forecasts suggest that Turkey risks a coronavirus outbreak on the same scale as Italy.

“Given how rapidly the number of cases has risen in recent days, Turkey may be headed for a disaster scenario within the next 10 days unless stricter precautionary measures are taken,” Esen told Arab News.

“There seems to be disagreement within the government between the minister of health and the president. Erdogan reportedly called for a complete lockdown after a recent Scientific Council meeting,” he said.

Turkish government policymakers are believed to be divided on whether imposing a full lockdown is the correct policy.

Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca, along with Scientific Council members under his ministry, advocates strict measures that put public health ahead of other concerns.

There is another group of ministers, however, whose apparent priority is kickstarting the stuttering economy.

“The government has refused to call for a national lockdown and has instead opted for voluntary quarantine and ‘shelter in place’ order for citizens over the age of 65,” Esen said.

“This approach is helping to spread infections if the rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases is any indication.”

Esen says the government has failed to provide financial relief to low-income citizens, many of whom continue to work in order to earn enough to cover their basic needs.

“Given the weak condition of the Turkish economy even before the pandemic, the government probably does not have sufficient resources to afford a full shutdown,” Esen said.

 


Panic in Lebanon as desert locust swarms hit farmland

Panic in Lebanon as desert locust swarms hit farmland
Updated 14 min 52 sec ago

Panic in Lebanon as desert locust swarms hit farmland

Panic in Lebanon as desert locust swarms hit farmland
  • Videos showing the insects flying over farmland in the towns of Ersal and Ras Baalbek in Bekaa circulated on social media, with the hashtag #locust trending in Lebanon
  • The Lebanese military said that helicopters had begun spraying pesticides over Baalbek and Ras Baalbek to “fight and eradicate” the desert locusts

BEIRUT: The arrival of locust swarms in Lebanon has caused panic among the country’s farmers.

Videos showing the insects flying over farmland in the towns of Ersal and Ras Baalbek in Bekaa circulated on social media, with the hashtag #locust trending in Lebanon on Friday as people made sarcastic comments about the latest crisis to hit the beleaguered country.

The Lebanese military said that helicopters had begun spraying pesticides over Baalbek and Ras Baalbek to “fight and eradicate” the desert locusts.

Ersal Mayor Bassel Al-Hujairi recounted seeing “millions” of locusts flying and attacking cherry trees and crops.

“Locusts have invaded one-third of Ersal,” he told Arab News. “As we rushed to find out the size of the disaster, locust swarms had already gone across the town, which means that in the early hours of Friday locusts were able to cross 15 km, heading from barren areas toward Ersal. If these swarms multiply, they can cover the sun.”

Ersal was home to more than two million cherry, apple and apricot trees that were located on the town’s southern and eastern sides, said the mayor, and locusts were still on the northern side of the town. 

“I hope wind will not take them to other directions,” he added.

The swarms arrived in Lebanon after invading Syria, Iraq and Jordan.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said the appearance of desert locusts in Syria and Jordan was an “unusual and rare” event caused by several days of strong southerly winds and high temperatures that brought the adult groups to these areas.

It added that while the swarms did not represent a “large-scale invasion” and could be controlled, it feared that some of the mature adults may lay eggs and reproduce.

The ministries of agriculture and defense have mobilized to address the problem as Lebanon is a member of the FAO’s Commission for Controlling the Desert Locust in the Central Region.

Agriculture Minister Abbas Mortada inspected Ersal and said that ministry teams had witnessed “locust waves” and were able to define their approximate scope. 

“But we still have fears that these locusts may reproduce and invade fields and farms. People are filming the locust swarms, but they are still relatively far.”

Ras Baalbek Mayor Menhem Mhanna reported “huge numbers” of locusts over the town’s barren areas and expressed his fears about these swarms reaching inhabited areas.

“Locusts will not find anything in Lebanon since the politicians have devoured everything,” said one person on social media, while another said: “Lebanon’s politicians are more dangerous than these swarms.”

“Locusts are the cherry on the top to be added to Lebanon’s economic collapse, political gridlock and starvation,” read another comment.

The crisis has brought the Lebanese back to the beginning of the 20th century, when swarms stripped the country of almost all its vegetation.

At that time Lebanon was already grappling with economic hardship and a double blockade by both the Ottoman Empire and the Allied Forces, resulting in a famine that led to more than a third of the population dying.

In 2013, historians and researchers Dr. Christian Taoutel and Father Pierre Wittouck released a book compiling the previously unpublished French chronicles of Jesuit priests during the famine called “The Lebanese people in the turmoil of the Great War of 1914-1918.”

According to the book, “famine started with a hungry swarm of locusts that devoured everything, where the Lebanese called the year of 1915 ‘The Year of Locusts’ which were impossible to control.”


Cyprus to impose partial lockdown to stem virus surge

Cyprus to impose partial lockdown to stem virus surge
Updated 23 April 2021

Cyprus to impose partial lockdown to stem virus surge

Cyprus to impose partial lockdown to stem virus surge
  • Restrictions will be slightly eased for Orthodox Easter at the start of May
  • Measures would help Cyprus’s vaccination rollout play catch up and ease pressure on hospitals, said Health Minister

NICOSIA: Cyprus on Friday announced a two-week partial lockdown as hospitals struggle to cope with surging coronavirus cases, with restrictions covering the key Orthodox Easter holidays.
“The growing number of infections, combined with intense pressure on the health system, cannot leave us indifferent and requires difficult decisions, drastic measures,” Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou told reporters.
The new restrictions, running from April 26 to May 9, mean that people are encouraged to work from home and must seek authorization for only one non-work-related trip daily.
Non-essential shops will close, and a 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 am curfew will be imposed, tightening the start time from 11:00 pm.
Restrictions will be slightly eased for Orthodox Easter at the start of May.
After May 9, people wanting to gather — such as in a restaurant — must provide either a negative Covid-19 test result with 72 hours or proof they have either had their first vaccine jab or have contracted the virus within the past three months.
Ioannou said the measures would help the Mediterranean island’s vaccination rollout play catch up and ease pressure on hospitals, witnessing record patient admissions.
Local daily the Cyprus Mail reported Friday a record high number of coronavirus patients in state hospitals, with the western town of Paphos opening a second Covid-19 ward to cope.
“We are in a very difficult phase of the pandemic,” Ioannou said.
Cyprus is facing a third wave of Covid-19 infections fueled by the more contagious British variant, with daily cases peaking at a record 941 on Tuesday.
The situation marks a stark deterioration from September last year, when reported cases were often close to or at zero per day.
Cyprus detected 668 new cases per 100,000 people over the seven days to April 22 — the highest population-adjusted rate of any country in the world, AFP’s database shows.
Uruguay was second highest worldwide on this measure, with 558 detected infections per 100,000 people.


King Abdullah II declares Jordan’s ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released

King Abdullah II declares Jordan’s ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released
Updated 23 April 2021

King Abdullah II declares Jordan’s ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released

King Abdullah II declares Jordan’s ‘strong’ as defendants in ‘sedition’ case released
  • The king said the “sedition” would not shake Jordan and that his country was “strong”
  • Defendants in sedition case released in honor of Ramadan

AMMAN: Jordan’s King Abdullah II said in a meeting this week that in honor of Ramadan 16 defendants involved in a “sedition” case would be released.

“As a father and a brother to all Jordanians, and in this holy month of tolerance and solidarity, when we all wish to be with our families, I ask the relevant officials to look into the proper mechanism to have those who were misled into following the sedition, return to their families soon,” he said during the meeting with officials from Jordan’s various governorates at Al-Husseiniya Palace.

The king said the “sedition” would not shake Jordan and that his country was “strong.”

King Abdullah II said although “what took place was painful,” recent events in the kingdom “won’t shake us.”

Several people have been arrested since the beginning of April following events that threatened to undermine the kingdom’s security and stability.

Reaffirming his commitment to the Jordanian people, the king said: “My duty, goal, and the pledge I have made is to serve and protect our people and country, and this is the standard that defines how we deal with everything.”


Libyan FM calls for ‘stability, peace, security’

Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush, Libya’s first woman foreign minister, speaking in a hearing of the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ foreign affairs committee attended by Arab News. (AN Photo/Francesco Bongarrà)
Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush, Libya’s first woman foreign minister, speaking in a hearing of the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ foreign affairs committee attended by Arab News. (AN Photo/Francesco Bongarrà)
Updated 23 April 2021

Libyan FM calls for ‘stability, peace, security’

Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush, Libya’s first woman foreign minister, speaking in a hearing of the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ foreign affairs committee attended by Arab News. (AN Photo/Francesco Bongarrà)
  • Tripoli laying path for ‘fair, legal elections,’ minister tells Italian MPs

ROME: “Stability, peace and security” are Libya’s major priorities ahead of the country’s next elections, Foreign Minister Najla El-Mangoush told a meeting of Italian MPs.

Speaking in a hearing of the Italian Chamber of Deputies’ foreign affairs committee attended by Arab News, El-Mangoush said that Libya’s transitional government intends to “talk to everyone the same way and put a new agenda on the table.”

“Peace and security will not be possible without regional and international support,” she said.

Libya’s first woman foreign minister addressed Italian MPs for more than an hour, and was quizzed on her Cabinet’s views on issues ranging from Libya’s relationship with Italy to tackling illegal immigration. 

She said that Libya takes responsibility for violations of migrants’ rights in its territory, but urged the global community to adopt a “different and alternative approach” to stop the flow of illegal immigrants crossing the country’s southern borders.

“Illegal immigration is a broad and thorny topic. However, it is not only a Libyan issue, but a regional and an international one,” El-Mangoush said.

“I ask the international community to be practical and proactive: You need a strategy that is consistent with the current phase. Blaming the coast guard is useless. We have an uninterrupted flow of migrants coming from African states. We do not know who is coming: They could be criminals or sick.

“We are against the violation of human rights and we are sad for the condition of these migrants, but Libya is a transit country for migratory flows and our resources are limited.”

She added that “in southern Libya, we have a famine in progress. What can you ask to a people on the edge  of famine? How can these people help somebody arriving from the south if they need help themselves? Please, don’t blame us, but try to understand the difficult situation we are facing. We have limited resources and outdated policies to deal with this.”

Discussing the withdrawal of foreign forces from Libya, the minister said she believes this will not happen in a day, but will be the result of long negotiations. However, she believes that the dialogue with several states involved “gives us hope.”

“For us, sovereignty is the top priority, so stability and security are in order to be able to hold democratic, clean and legal elections,” she said.  

“We asked everyone, including Turkey, for cooperation to get all foreign forces off Libyan soil. Our safe future depends on the withdrawal of foreign forces.”

El-Mangoush said that the Libyan government “wishes for an even bigger role for Italy to solve Libya’s crisis, to put an end to foreign interference and help us to release all foreign forces.”

She called for Italian help in economic, medical and cultural areas, including the restoration of Tripoli’s old town and ancient buildings in the center of Benghazi damaged by war.

“Only the Italians can do a good job,” she said.


Thousands fall victim to $2bn Turkish cryptocurrency fraud

Thousands fall victim to $2bn Turkish cryptocurrency fraud
Updated 23 April 2021

Thousands fall victim to $2bn Turkish cryptocurrency fraud

Thousands fall victim to $2bn Turkish cryptocurrency fraud
  • The founder of cryptocurrency exchange Thodex, Faruk Fatih Ozer, fled the country with about $2 billion, leaving more than 391,000 users defrauded
  • The fraud case coincided with an overnight decision by the Central Bank of Turkey to ban the use of digital currencies and assets to pay for goods and services from April 30

ANKARA: Turkey’s cryptocurrency market has seen its first large-scale fraud case after the founder of cryptocurrency exchange Thodex, Faruk Fatih Ozer, fled the country with about $2 billion, leaving more than 391,000 users defrauded.

Ozer reportedly escaped to Albania.

In collaboration with Turkish authorities, Interpol has issued a red notice for the fugitive wanted for prosecution.

Although an investigation was launched into the company whose accounts were blocked by the financial crimes investigation board MASAK on April 21, the scheme revealed loopholes in the system.

The company has operated since 2017. It recently shut down services for several days, saying that it will allow outside investment from “prestigious banks and funding companies” in order to serve partners.

However, shortly after the statement, users began facing problems with money transfers before the site became inaccessible.

The daily volume of cryptocurrency trading in Turkey is believed to be about $1-$2 billion.

The fraud case is the largest in Turkish history, and coincided with an overnight decision by the Central Bank of Turkey to ban the use of digital currencies and assets to pay for goods and services from April 30.

Among other decisions, the central bank also targeted people and companies that fund illegal activities or facilitate money laundering through cryptocurrencies.

The Thodex founder was previously photographed in a meeting with several top Turkish policymakers.

According to a report by the World Economic Forum, Turkey ranked fourth among the 74 largest economies in the world and first in Europe for cryptocurrency adoption by the population.

“Thodex, as a cryptocurrency trading platform, is just another company in Turkey, and there are no laws for this kind of setup,” Fatih Guner, an expert on the cryptocurrency market, told Arab News.

Recent polls revealed that between 16 and 20 percent of Turks used or owned cryptocurrencies last year.

“The adoption is high, but the literacy is not that high. And the lack of literacy is crucial for cryptocurrency trading platforms because these platforms only make money if people buy and sell coins on their platforms. Exchanges from all over the world are investing in PR and dark marketing to gain new amateur traders, with influencers, YouTube creators, newsletter writers and Twitter trolls,” Guner said.

According to Guner, influencers work with exchanges to encourage inexperienced investors with false claims of profit.

“Turkey is a haven for coin exchanges because of the lack of legislation. The government has to step up and legislate heavily,” he said.

“In recent years, we saw that Turkish people heavily indulged in the lottery, football bets and all kinds of lawful gambling. The government seems to see exchanges as some other kind of gambling and loosely controls them to keep people busy while they live on the edge of poverty. Turkey’s cryptocurrency adoption rate is fourth in the world after Nigeria, Vietnam and the Philippines. The economic resemblance is uncanny,” Guner added.

Experts have long urged the government to take tougher measures to deal with criminals who defraud amateur cryptocurrency investors.

In March, a man in the southern Turkish city of Antalya killed his two children and wife before committing suicide after losing a large sum of money in Bitcoin investments.