Taksim Square’s flocks of resident pigeons, normally waddling around with full bellies thanks to cups of grains that children toss at them, swoop unhindered straight at the heads of the few passers-by, mostly policemen and media.
It feels more like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s horror thriller “The Birds” than one of Istanbul’s most crowded squares, normally teeming with Turks and tourists alike.
Then again, nothing about the impact Covid-19 is having across the globe is normal or familiar.
Last weekend, the Turkish government implemented a 48-hour curfew for 31 provinces, impacting three quarters of Turkey’s population.
And while critics of the government have been calling for these types of severe measures to curb the rise of Covid-19, the initial outcome was disastrous.
The curfew was announced just two hours before it was to go into effect – causing a buying panic in some areas as people flocked to grocery stores and bakeries with little regard for social distancing measures.
Social media was flooded with coronavirus dark humor: a husband caught in breach of the curfew fleeing the scene leaving his car and wife behind; a man who tries to dodge the penalty fee by saying he doesn’t speak Turkish, but the police figure out that he does.
Following the chaos around the curfew, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the nation, arguing that Turkey is strong enough to protect and provide for its citizens, while urging the population to stay at home, and announcing another weekend curfew.
In confronting coronavirus, Turkey is charting its own path – as it does in so many other ways.
During the week, the stay-at-home order only applies to those under the age of 20 or over 65. All other citizens are in theory allowed to go out, although many small businesses are closed, restaurants are open for delivery or pick-up only, public places like parks are off limits, and banks have limited hours.
By contrast, construction sites are in full swing, along with factories and other businesses that are unwilling to take an economic hit.
Some experts say partial restrictions like Turkey’s can be successful – as long as those who are vulnerable continue to be protected and those who do venture out follow the appropriate measures.
“It’s an alternative strategy,” said Dr. Muhammad Munir, a virologist at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, explaining that healthy people going out for routine shopping does not necessarily do any harm.
“Eighty percent of the people infected have recovered. So, if it’s healthy people who don’t have underlying causes, then that is absolutely helpful. The only benefit of a lockdown is that the spread of the disease will be slow, the pressure on the hospitals will be reduced.”
Dr. Jeremy Rossman, a honorary senior lecturer in Virology at the University of Kent says it’s tricky given the numbers of cases that Turkey is reporting daily, and that partial lockdowns are only really effective when done early on and a country still has a low level of cases, or if a country has already peaked and is coming out of a full lockdown.
“At [Turkey’s] level, most countries are implementing a full lockdown. A partial lockdown can be good, it can balance keeping some of the economy functioning while still trying to contain the outbreak” He says. “It depends on how well the population is adhering to the guidance and how well physical distancing and hand hygiene are being implemented in workplaces. But at the rate Turkey is going right now, there is risk this won’t be sufficient.”
Turkey is among the top 10 countries in the world when it comes to confirmed coronavirus cases, and its toll is increasing by more than 4,000 cases per day. And the mortality rate has been much lower here than elsewhere – which has raised eyebrows.
The Turkish Medical Association (TMA) says Turkey’s official coronavirus death statistics do not include cases that strongly indicate Covid-19 but test negative.
“Doctors that belong to our association have reported that even those CT scans and/or clinical findings indicate the disease, if PCR test results are not positive, if the patient dies they are not recorded as Covid-19,” the TMA said in their report. CT scans are imaging tests, while PCR tests are used to detect the RNA of the virus.