File Photo: People wearing masks to help protect against the spread of the coronavirus, walk on a street in Turkey & nbsp | & nbspPhoto credit: & nbspAP
From the moment the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to international travel, Turkey was determined to be the first to open up again to tourism – so much so that when an outbreak of infections coincided with the arrival of the first plane of vacationers. in april, the government adopted a new approach to containment. Instead of closing borders or imposing a quarantine on arrivals, it forced its own citizens to leave their streets, parks and beaches and lock them up so that tourists could move around freely and in safety.
In a 17-day lockdown imposed on April 29 – the first since the start of the pandemic – workplaces were closed, public transport was limited to 50% of capacity, and anyone wishing to travel to one city to another to visit friends or relatives for Eid had to get a permit. As temperatures soared during the first weekend of May, Ukrainian tourists to the Datca Peninsula in southwestern Turkey were having fun on the beaches. A Turkish citizen who tried to do the same was deported by the police and fined.
Unsurprisingly, being denied the freedom to move around their own country sparked a lot of outrage, as well as a bit of dark humor. When Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on May 6 pledged to vaccinate all workers in the tourism industry by the end of the month, a Twitter wag threatened to “start biting tourists.” If he didn’t get his shot. An eight-year-old Tourism Ministry ad depicting a blonde girl playing on a deserted beach resurfaced on social media as a mock ad with a parody slogan: “Unlimited Turkey: Now Available Without Turks . “
After a new promotional video from the Ministry of Tourism released on May 13 with the slogan “Enjoy, I’m vaccinated”, the comedian Kaan Sekban tweeted: “If you see a Turk in front of your hotel, please call 112 [the number for the emergency services]Due to public outrage, the video was taken down within two hours, but #TurizmBakaniIstifa (meaning “Resignation of Tourism Minister”) continued to follow the trend on Twitter.
Tourism accounts for 12 percent of Turkey’s economy and rescuing the industry has been at the forefront of government pandemic policy. Turkey was the first country to reopen its borders last June and the first country to remove all entry requirements related to COVID. Almost half a million tourists from the UK alone visited Turkey last summer. But for the Turkish people, it seems their safety matters a lot less than that of tourists or even any passing foreigner.
And many are indeed passing through, taking advantage of the lack of testing, Turkey’s quarantine loophole to travel from “red list countries” with high COVID rates. This is why the COVID-19 variant found in India, which is ravaging the subcontinent, has surfaced in Turkey, with five cases identified in early May. Therefore, all travelers from India must now self-quarantine.
As of May 15, PCR testing is no longer required for travelers arriving in Turkey from 16 countries, including Hong Kong, China and the United Kingdom. The head of the Turkish Medical Association, Dr Sebnem Korur Fincanci, has warned the government that he is playing with fire.
At the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organization praised Turkey’s handling of the crisis. While Britain was still debating whether to seek collective immunity, last May the wearing of masks was already compulsory in Turkey. Anyone caught without a mask is liable to a fine. Yet a year later, Turkey has the fourth highest rate of new daily infections in the world, calculated on a per capita basis.
How did it come to this? The Turkish Medical Association is clear on the reasons. “The government has prioritized profits over saving lives,” said Secretary General Dr Vedat Bulut.
Even though most of the recent new cases of COVID-19 have been identified as the UK variant, Ankara has taken no action to restrict travel to or from the UK. There is also no analysis of how Turkey’s open borders have affected the spread of the virus.
According to the Ministry of Health, as of May 16, 25 million vaccines had been administered. Oxford University’s Our World in Data project puts the fully vaccinated figure at just over 13% of the population. The government has a history of underreporting information on COVID-19 – last October, for example, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca admitted to counting “patients, not cases”, meaning that the number of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases was not included in the daily briefings. As such, the public remains skeptical. Meanwhile, Turkey has already welcomed 1,047,000 tourists in the first two months of 2021 and hopes that with the on-going vaccination program it will meet its target of 25 million tourists this year.
No one disputes the importance of tourism in Turkey. Granted, he was hit hard by COVID-19. But should he be saved at all costs, including the safety and freedom of the Turkish people? Having given tourists and visitors the freedom to do whatever they want while placing its own citizens virtually under house arrest – not to mention increasing their exposure to the virus – has many twisted priorities.
In agreement with the Syndication Office
Alexandra de Cramer is a guest contributor. The opinions expressed are personal.