On a boiling hot day in Istanbul last July, hundreds of thousands of people gathered outside the Hagia Sophia to celebrate President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that the historic building the modern state’s secular founders had made a museum would be turned back into a mosque.
The decision was widely perceived outside the country as a turning point in Turkey’s relationship with the west. In retrospect, the crowds in Sultanahmet Square represented another cultural shift – a change in how Turkey’s government dealt with the coronavirus pandemic after months of closed borders and weekend and evening curfews.
Turks are once again enjoying a taste of normality after the lifting of a three-week “full” lockdown, the country’s first. The Turkish health ministry says the number of coronavirus infections has dropped by 72% after record-breaking highs of more than 60,000 new cases a day in April.
The success rate has been used as an argument that the country is ready for the crucial summer tourism season. Yet Turkey still has the fifth highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world and doctors said the officially reported drop in new cases is statistically impossible, showing instead a huge reduction in testing.
Turkey’s official death toll from Covid-19 is 45,186. However, analysis of municipality death statistics shared with the Guardian by Güçlü Yaman, a computer scientist affiliated with the Turkish Medical Association’s pandemic working group, shows more than 140,000 excess deaths across the country compared with the average of the previous three years, leaving 68% of the total number of excess deaths unaccounted for.
The Turkish health ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Turkey was initially praised by the World Health Organization at the pandemic’s onset for taking quick and effective action but its response has sunk into a quagmire of U-turns, omissions, mistakes and half-measures that have seemingly prioritised political and economic issues at the expense of public health.
“In the beginning of the pandemic there was a genuine effort to mitigate the risk, but since then, politics got in the way,” said Dr Çağhan Kızıl, another member of the Turkish Medical Association’s pandemic working group.
“The Turkish government has looked at the scientific advice available and decided to use it as a cover to suit their own agenda. It’s a gamble: Turkey’s population skews young, so most of them will probably be OK. Management of the crisis now is about making people think the pandemic is over, rather than actually fixing it.”
The early days of the Covid-19 outbreak was a very different story. In February 2020, Turkey observed the growing crisis next door in Iran and decided to close the border; contact-tracing teams experienced in dealing with Turkey’s endemic tuberculosis problem were activated the next month, and in April evening and weekend curfews introduced in an effort to balance stopping the movement of people while preserving an already struggling economy.
Problems with the approach, however, soon became apparent. Relatively low case numbers, discrepancies in how doctors were instructed to record deaths and an insistence on using the clinically non-effective anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat coronavirus patients raised early red flags for the healthcare community.
After three months of movement restrictions, desperate not to damage the economy further, the government declared Turkey was ready to enter a process of “normalisation” from 1 June. Over the summer, mass gatherings slowly picked up again – most notably the gathering of crowds at the Hagia Sophia.
Colder autumn temperatures also contributed to a sharp rise in cases. But in October, doctors’ fears were confirmed when the government admitted to massively underreporting official case numbers, only giving the number of “symptomatic” cases in its daily updates.
Yet the ensuing fury from healthcare workers and opposition campaigners was met with criticism by Erdoğan’s coalition partner, Devlet Bahçeli, who accused doctors of “treason” and said the Turkish Medical Association should be shut down. The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) continued to hold indoor rallies, in breach of its own rules.
The government finally implemented a second period of travel restrictions over the winter, but the rules were lifted too early, and by March this year Turkey was hit by an inevitable third wave.
As most of Europe prepared to start easing coronavirus rules this spring, Turkey’s attempts at half-truths and half-measures finally ran out of steam. The country was forced to finally implement a total lockdown during the month of Ramadan.
But the reason doctors are saying it probably has not worked is the same reason Turkey was loath to implement a “full” lockdown in the first place: the government was unable to afford to give small businesses financial assistance, so many people kept working.
“There is no financial help, or almost none. Even the special loan I took out to pay rent has a high interest rate,” said Halil Arslan, who works at a florist in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu neighbourhood.
“The shop has been here for 15 years but the work has dropped 80%. We are just hanging on.”
Further lockdowns are not politically inexpedient if the AKP wants to hang on to its working-class base: after almost two decades in power, support for the party has steadily begun to seep away since 2018’s lira crash.
“We were already dealing with increasing poverty before the pandemic. Since the lockdown we have added huge numbers of ‘working poor’ to the overall figures. We are doing our best to provide aid for one in four households in the city now,” said Esra Huri Bulduk, who runs social services programming in the megacity of Istanbul.
There has been widespread anger, too, at the “two tier” nature of the lockdown, in which foreign tourists were encouraged to visit and enjoy the country’s sites while Turks themselves were not allowed to leave home without facing steep fines.
Even the early successes of Turkey’s vaccination programme have been overshadowed by major stumbles such as delays in shipments and health minister Fahrettin Koca’s turnaround comments on the use of certain vaccines.
“Saying some vaccines are not safe to use and then changing your mind and telling people to get shots of Sputnik 5 or mRNA vaccines anyway erodes trust and increases vaccine hesitancy,” said Kızıl.
“Science is about uncertainty: that’s part of why it’s amazing. But the Turkish government appears to have all the answers already, even if they don’t add up … We are not defeating the virus. We are playing political games.”