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

  • 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.


Coronavirus tracing app stirs rare privacy backlash in Qatar

Updated 3 min 20 sec ago

Coronavirus tracing app stirs rare privacy backlash in Qatar

  • Version forces Android users to permit access to their picture and video galleries

DOHA: Privacy concerns over Qatar’s coronavirus contact tracing app, a tool that is mandatory on pain of prison, have prompted a rare backlash and forced officials to offer reassurance and concessions.

Like other governments around the world, Qatar has turned to mobile phones to trace people’s movements and track who they come into contact with, allowing officials to monitor coronavirus infections and alert people at risk of contagion.

The apps use Bluetooth radio signals to “ping” nearby devices, which can be contacted subsequently if a user they have been near develops symptoms or tests positive, but the resultant unprecedented access to users’ location data has prompted fears about state surveillance.

Qatar’s version goes considerably further — it forces Android users to permit access to their picture and video galleries, while also allowing the app to make unprompted calls.

“I can’t understand why it needs all these permissions,” wrote Ala’a on a Facebook group popular with Doha’s large expat community — one of several such forums peppered with concerns over the app.

Justin Martin, a journalism professor based in Qatar, warned authorities in a tweet not to “erode” trust by enforcing “an app with such alarming permissions.”

The government launched the “Ehteraz” app, meaning “precaution,” in April and on Friday it became mandatory for all citizens and legal residents to install it on their phones.

Noncompliance is punishable by up to three years in jail — the same term as for failing to wear a mask in public — in a state battling one of the world’s highest per capita infection rates.

Almost 44,000 of Qatar’s 2.75 million people have tested positive for the respiratory disease — 1.6 percent of the population — and 23 people have died. Security forces manned checkpoints across Qatar on Sunday to ensure use of the app, local media reported, alongside checking for use of masks.

Criticism of the government is rare in Qatar and laws prohibit disrespect toward officials. However, officials have said that the law on the app will be enforced with “understanding.”

The app’s simple interface displays colored bar-codes containing the user’s ID number — green for healthy, red for COVID-19 positive and yellow for quarantined cases. Grey indicates suspected cases or those who have come into contact with infected individuals.

Mohamed bin Hamad Al-Thani, a director at Qatar’s Health Ministry, said that data gathered is “completely confidential.”

“There will be an update for the Ehteraz app to address the issues of concern and further improve its efficiency,” he added in an interview on state television on Thursday.

A new version of the software was duly released for Apple and Android on Sunday, promising “minor bug fixes,” but without indicating that the invasive aspects had been removed.

The app was introduced just as authorities across the Muslim world warned that gatherings during Ramadan and the Eid Al-Fitr festival  could lead to a surge of infections.

“There are two key concerns ... with the app,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Hiba Zayadin.

It “is highly invasive, with a range of permissions allowing the government access to things that are not needed for the purpose of contact tracing, permissions that are unnecessary and present a concerning invasion of privacy.” But also “many migrant workers in the country don’t have compatible phones that would allow them to download the app and comply.”

Online reviews have also complained that the app drains battery power and cannot be installed on older iPhone handsets. Some have looked for ways around the policy. “People are spending money and waiting in queues just to get burner phones to protect their privacy,” wrote expat engineer Janko on one forum, referring to cheap handsets that could subsequently be disposed of. There have been reports of a few users being wrongly classified as “quarantined” or “suspected cases.”

“There’s no need for photo access and other things. But it could be a good tool. It is a good way to prioritize whom to test,” technology lawyer Rahul Matthan said. But “to work, they need a large number of people to use it. If people are dissuaded because of the app’s overreach, then that would be a worry.”