Translated by Leo Kendrick
Following a reopening period that saw relatively stable case numbers until the middle of July, Turkey is again in the midst of an increase in coronavirus cases, driven by loosened restrictions, the contagious Delta variant, and lagging vaccination efforts, especially in southeastern provinces of the country.
A full 2.5 week lockdown at the beginning of May coincided with the Ramadan holiday and succeeded in bringing daily case numbers well below 10,000. Numbers remained stable during a gradual reopening process throughout the month of June as vaccination efforts were ramped up. From July 1st, nearly all restrictions, including evening curfews, were scrapped, with a ban on late night music past 24:00 remaining as the sole vestige of the country’s 6+ months of Corona restrictions. From the middle of July, however, the country has seen case and death numbers gradually creep up again, with experts warning that Turkey is now headed towards its fourth peak.
A more contagious variant
Speaking to Medyascope in a recent interview, Science Board member Prof. Dr. Serap Şimşek Yavuz expressed that the rise in cases is being driven in large part by the Delta variant, which is believed to be twice as contagious as the virus’ original strain. According to Dr. Yavuz, Turkey is now experiencing a similar surge to those seen in India, the United Kingdom, and Indonesia in recent months, which were also driven by increased contagion of the new variant. This increase, one that had been predicted by experts during Turkey’s reopening process, now qualifies as “uncontrolled spread” in many major urban centers according to WHO guidelines.
Effects of the Bayram holiday
The Feast of the Sacrifice holiday (Kurban Bayramı), which concluded on July 23, can also be cited as a driver of rising case numbers. Following a Ramadan holiday in May spent at home under strict lockdown, Turks gathered in mass to celebrate the Feast, also known as Eid Al-Adha. Two weeks removed from the holiday, Dr. Yavuz explained that the effects of large gatherings seen during the Bayram are now being picked up in the daily case numbers.
Are new restrictions on the way?
Dr. Yavuz added that Turkey is currently experiencing a level of caseload that should necessitate some return to restrictions, despite the fact that the country remains open and that Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has recently downplayed the necessity of new measures. The minister said in a statement following a Coronavirus board meeting on July 28 that there was no need to reintroduce restrictions, although he warned that they may become necessary should the rise in cases continue unabated.
Yavuz explained that from a scientific point of view, the current level of virus spread and case numbers in Turkey should necessitate at least modest measures such as the limiting of crowds in public transport and in restaurants. Nevertheless, the public mask requirement remains the only significant antivirus measure in place following the full reopening on July 1st.
Vaccination efforts continue, but with major regional discrepancies
Following the July 28 cabinet meeting, Minister Koca also added that currently active coronavirus cases in the country, and Corona-related hospitalizations, are represented disproportionately by unvaccinated individuals, giving the numbers of 87% and 95% respectively. While certain regions of the country, such as most Aegean and Thracean provinces, have reached first-dose vaccination rates of over 75%, other areas, such as provinces in southeastern Anatolia, lag far behind. As of August 5, Şanlıurfa has the lowest first-dose vaccination rate with less than 41%. Neighboring Siirt, with a vaccination rate of 48%, currently has the highest per-100,000 caseload, rising from 748.39 to 1139.94 in the past week.
Vaccine requirement unlikely
Turkish officials have repeatedly stressed that they have no intention to introduce a broad vaccination mandate, instead preferring that citizens get the jab by their own accord. Nevertheless, the imminent fourth peak has made some experts consider whether certain measures seen in other countries, such as requiring proof of vaccination for entry into restaurants or concert venues, may be needed in Turkey.
The rising case numbers together with the approaching start of the school year have stoked fears that a return to in-person learning may be complicated should a fourth peak coincide with the planned September 6 start date for school across Turkey. Although the age limit for vaccination in Turkey currently stands at 17, plans are underway to lower this limit down to 12, a change that has already been made in other countries. Additionally, broad vaccination for adults, particularly those sending children to school, is thought to be critical for a successful return to in-person learning next month.