This change in methodology and terminology, indeed, made it impossible to reliably track the spread of the pandemic in Turkey or to compare it with other countries given that the total number of cases now included a major irregularity. This was also an uncontroversial choice for a government whose main method of control was individual responsibility. Citizens who were asked to behave responsibly to control the spread of the virus and who were constantly scolded for their irresponsible behavior by government officials were, in fact, completely left uninformed on the seriousness of the situation by the same government.
However, what was even more striking and potentially more harmful, was the attitude of the World Health Organization (WHO). Even though Turkey announced officially that it was not listing asymptomatic cases in its case load, the figures announced by the WHO did not refer to this fact. There was not even a note or a warning in the WHO figures. Instead, for many months, in the WHO figures Turkey stood successfully in the daily case rankings after Austria, Hungary and Serbia - countries which are much less populous than Turkey, yet are reporting much higher infection rates. In fact, the WHO praised Turkey's efforts to curb the novel coronavirus, emphasizing that it significantly increased the daily number of tests and their effects by isolating all Covid-19 positive cases, regardless of their symptoms. Recently, the WHO office in Turkey announced that they were not aware that Turkey was only reporting patients, but not cases.
The Lost Battle?
As the second wave of the pandemic hit, many countries introduced new restrictive measures such as night curfews, regional lockdowns, bans on public gatherings. Turkey’s initial measures, however, were mostly cosmetic, except for school closures - a measure which most European countries opted against in the second wave, arguing that it would be detrimental to the young people’s futures. The figures that now listed only patients but not cases, did not bring any serious measures despite the constant warnings of health professionals and the Turkish Medical Association. These warnings were taken as hostile attempts aiming to discredit and condemn the government’s policy to fight the pandemic. The leader of the junior partner in Turkey’s governing block, Mr. Devlet Bahçeli, even charged the Turkish Medical Association for spreading unfounded and panic-inducing accusations, and asked for its closure - an act which possibly further demoralized health workers.
As the virus was spreading uncontrollably, Turkey was also losing all of its initial advantages. Even though people over 65 were supposed to stay at home, the rapid spread of the virus among the youth put older people at increasing risk. The infection rate among the younger population, also put the health system under strain. The contagion was no longer concentrated in the big cities, but all over the country where families were larger and comprised higher rates of elderly population. These were also the towns, unlike the big cities, with less hospital beds and ICU units per person. Finally, as they dealt with the relentless spread of the pandemic for months on end, health workers were exhausted. As the spread of the virus was getting out of control, on November 25, Health Minister Koca finally decided to announce the "true" number of cases and not just the patients. This was followed by stricter measures, such as night curfews and weekend lockdowns. Still, the measures were more limited when compared to the first wave and even those limited measures were announced very late. Even though schools and restaurants were closed, malls and mosques are still open. As of this writing there is no travel ban, either domestically or internationally. Under these conditions, Turkey climbed to the top rank in the world in terms of the daily number of reported cases.
Turkey’s response to the pandemic has thus become a perfect example of post-truth politics in which the reality is disconnected from factual details, and is twisted to accommodate the needs of politics and to respond to economic expediency.
As the surprise and panic of the first wave disappeared and as confidence increased, facts and expert opinions were increasingly sidelined and their views were even considered detrimental to national interest. Principles of good governance, such as transparency, accountability, participation, trust, were long gone anyhow. Citizens were called to behave responsibly, but they were intentionally misguided about the seriousness of the situation.
At the end, however much the government may have tried to wish it away and needed a success story, the post-truth politics that guided Turkey’s pandemic response only succeeded in pulling defeat from the jaws of victory and leading the country to the winter that has come.
Copyright: Adem ALTAN / AFP