Turkey and the fight against Covid-19

An overview of achievements and challenges ahead

Dr Cevdet Yilmaz

The first Covid-19 case in Turkey was diagnosed on 11th of March, the same day when the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced its assessment that Covid-19 could be characterised as a pandemic. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Turkey has paid utmost importance to enhance collective efforts to overcome this global threat. The outbreak does not respect any geopolitical boundaries, social classes, or wealth of nations. We are all in this fight together. We know that the pandemic is a test for the whole of humanity and no one is safe until everyone is safe.

Turkey has demonstrated a stellar performance in addressing this pandemic. In what follows are brief insights into our success in responding to the pandemic.

Effective health system

Decades of heavy investment in the Turkish health sector and human capital is now paying off. Well-supplied medical equipment procurement and production chains, and strong social support services to the most vulnerable segments of the society have been critical to this success. AK Party governments were particularly generous in their investments on health facilities. ‘The City Hospitals’ were built as part of Turkey’s Health Transformation Program (HTP). This program was implemented by the successive AK Party governments between 2003-2013 to improve the health sector in country.

Turkey operates a mandatory universal system called General Healthcare Insurance (GSS) which enables citizens to benefit from treatment and intensive care services free of charge when they go to the health care facilities linked to social security.

Available statistics attest to Turkey’s success in the fight against Covid-19. For example, as of 1 September, Turkey ranks number 79 worldwide in terms of the number of cases per capita, with 3,331 confirmed coronavirus cases per 1 million people. Turkey’s death toll from Covid-19 reached 6,411 while it ranks 66 in global coronavirus mortality rates, with 76 virus deaths per 1 million people.1

Strong crisis management system

A scientific, transparent and communal-solidarity building approach to managing this crisis has been Turkey’s particular strength. Turkey has been able to marry science with good governance and established strong communication channels with its citizens. To this end, a Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board was formed early on, which comprise leading medical experts and professors of infectious diseases, to devise a game-plan in response to the pandemic. Besides, a wide-ranging management and decision-making mechanism titled “General Hygiene Board” and “Provincial Pandemic Board” has been established in all provinces under the management of the Ministry of Internal Affairs / Governorates (Governorships), representatives of mayors and the institutions arbiter in the administration of cities and hospitals. The Board has published a set of general recommendations, which included:

  • Repatriating Turkish citizens from China to Turkey
  • Suspending international flights
  • Closing land borders to certain countries
  • Establishing hospitals exclusively for the treatment pandemic victims
  • Preventing Turkish citizens from traveling abroad
  • Enforcing a 14-day quarantine for people returning from abroad
  • Promoting remote education
  • Temporarily changing the working system for restaurants, dormitories and nursing homes
  • Limiting contacts between family members and prisoners in all prisons.

Innovative medical algorithms

The deployment of an efficient contact-tracing as well as abundant number of daily tests (up to 50,000), ensured solid control of the chain of infection. Moreover, the delaying of transfer of patients to intensive care, early use of high oxygen flow instead of intubation, and early administration of a particular medicine have all yielded in one of the lowest death ratios in the world.

Comprehensive approach

Economic package

Covid-19 is not just a health crisis, it has significantly impacted us in social and economic terms and this needed an unconventional response. The introduction of generous economic support packages for sectors under particular strain from the pandemic, and President Erdoğan’s national solidarity campaign launch, have created a genuine and unique national mobilisation for those in need. Every effort has been extended so that no-one is left behind and this has been achieved through various programmes. Particular attention was given to protecting the poor, the unemployed as well as assisting households and companies. Under the Social Assistance Program of the Ministry of Family, Labour and Social Services, a total of over 2 billion liras (over $286 million) has been distributed to at-least 1,2 million families. Approximately  12 billion Turkish Liras social security incentives was transferred in the interval of January 2018-June 2020 for roughly 732,000 social insurant and 249,000 companies.

Repatriation of Turkish nationals

In addition to these measures, repatriating Turkish nationals from around the world has been a top priority for the government. Due to border closures by most countries and cancellation of international flights, tens of thousands of Turkish nationals were stranded outside Turkey.

President Erdoğan ordered the largest ever evacuation operation in the Republic’s history to bring home Turkish nationals stranded abroad. This was done in close cooperation and coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other institutions and ministries – Turkish Airlines, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Youth and Sports, Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) and the Turkish Red Crescent.

Since the first Turkish repatriation flight from Wuhan in China, close to 100 thousand Turkish nationals temporally outside of Turkey in over 139 countries have been repatriated. Turkish citizens who could not be treated abroad, were (and are still being) brought back to Turkey by the Turkish Heath Ministry’s ambulance aircrafts. Turkey has also supported 91 countries in their efforts to repatriate foreigners from Turkey.

Medical aid from Turkey

From the onset, Turkey has viewed Covid-19 a global crisis that needed a global response, coupled with strong international solidarity. Beyond its borders, Turkey has been extending a helping hand to different nations. So far, Turkey has provided medical supplies to 141 countries including NATO allies like the UK, USA, Spain and Italy. Even before the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic, Turkey had already extended her hand of friendship and solidarity to friendly nations by donating significant quantity of medical equipment. It has also been receiving requests for medical supplies from practically every corner of the world in increasing numbers – from financial assistance to permission to purchase / export medical equipment.

Turkey has donated medical equipment to China February 1st, and on 16th of March to Iran. In its fight against Covid-19 and to support others, Turkey has received demands from 153 countries.2

Food assistance abroad

Besides the above, Turkey has provided food to countries that have faced food security issues during the ongoing pandemic. In some developing and/or least developed countries, TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency) has organised mentoring programmes for the production of PPE, using local resources. Working alongside AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Agency), TIKA and others have been implementing special aid programmes for vulnerable groups, including refugees, displaced people, people with disabilities, children without parental care and the elderly.

Financial help to countries affected

Among the 24 countries which have applied for financial assistance, Turkey has been providing financial support to several friendly countries whose economies have been affected by the pandemic such as Chad, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia and Lesotho. Turkey extended 5 million USD of financial aid to the people of Palestine.

Apart from individual countries, Turkey has, to date, met demands of six international organisations.3

Turkey strongly believes that global cooperation and solidarity are crucial to defeating Covid-19. With its extensive humanitarian diplomacy, Turkey continues extend assistance to many countries in need of support and assistance.

Turkey gives priority to the needs of its people, like any other country. However, it has also helped other countries within the limits of its capacity. Some might choose to refer to this as “coronavirus diplomacy”, however, this is part and parcel of Turkey’s “Enterprising and Humanitarian Foreign Policy”. This approach reflects the character of the Turkish people and represents the essence of Turkish foreign policy. Before the outbreak, Turkey was known as the top refugee-hosting country (with 4 million externally displaced persons, 3.7 million Syrians) and most generous donor of humanitarian aid. Turkey’s position in humanitarian diplomacy was further crowned by hosting the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in 2016; it had also been elevated to co-chair the Global Refugee Forum. With the Coronavirus outbreak, Turkey has become second largest supplier of medical aid worldwide.

Preparation for post Covid-19 era

Trade and Economy

The Coronavirus outbreak has caused unprecedented disruption in trade and economy. Turkey’s economic policy response to Covid-19 was swift and comprehensive which helped to mitigate the worst of the effects, and has set the stage for an earlier recovery. Economic support from of our government also helped to keep businesses afloat, which implemented wage reductions.

On the instruction of the President, the Social Protection Shield scheme was launched on March 30th to support people suffering financially due to measures taken to curb the virus’ spread. Over TL 30 billion have been extended, to date, in the form of social assistance or support to protect employment. Furthermore, a TL 445 billion economic package called Economic Stability Shield Program was announced to protect business, individuals, companies and various industries affected by the pandemic as well as vulnerable citizens.

Moving forward, Turkey needs to avoid negative repercussions of this period by ensuring the uninterrupted flow of goods and services such as focusing on recovery. In this spirit, Turkey is gearing-up its trade diplomacy and facilitating uninterrupted free trade to help recover from the crisis. Turkey is exploring ways to support and attract foreign investors as well as promote cooperation in the financial sector, including swap arrangements.

Tourism diplomacy

Turkey is boosting its tourism diplomacy. Foreign Ministry officials are in close communication with others to ensure safety of tourists. Our Culture and Tourism Minister sent letters to his counterparts in 91 countries in this regard. In response to the pandemic, the Culture and Tourism Ministry launched the Safe Tourism Certification scheme in partnership with the Foreign Ministry. One of the first of its kind, this new certification scheme has been developed with the contributions of Ministry of Health, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in cooperation with all the stakeholders in the industry. The scheme defines and advises an extensive series of measures to be taken with regards to transportation and accommodation of all Turkish citizens and international visitors on holiday in Turkey. This extends to the wellbeing and health conditions of passengers / guests and of employees working at touristic facilities.

The Foreign Minister together with the Culture and Tourism Minister hosted 50 Ambassadors in Antalya on 19 June 2020, for an onsite demonstration of the measures introduced by Turkey for the welfare and safety of tourists. Moreover, our Foreign Minister also visited the UK and Germany to convey our message, based on scientific and epidemiologic data. Turkey, expects a fair decision from the EU Council with regards to the travel restrictions.

Turkey keeps its official target of attracting over 75 million tourists and generating $65 billion in tourism revenue by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic.4

The health infrastructure of Turkey as well as its industrial capacity has proved itself during the Covid-19 crisis through a series of robust measures and policies. Just like health tourism as an opportunity for Turkey in the post Covid-19 era, our industrial basis and technological dynamism are well positioned for upcoming priorities.

New technology and digitisation

Once more, the outbreak has reminded us of the transformative effect of new technologies and digitalisation. Learning the skills to adapt to this transformation is important. Countries boasting their economic and technological prowess have been late in confronting the pandemic. The post-pandemic economic order will be much more dependent on the use of technology than before. Turkey’s strong infrastructure for the production of technology is testament of its fight against Coronavirus. Turkey is also carrying out apace innovative projects for diagnostic kits and systems that will help people face new challenges.

Turkish tech firm, Biosys, designed the domestic medical ventilators device, and after the pandemic hit, Turkish firms (Baykar, Aselsan, Arçelik) started mass production of the kit in coordination with the Technology and Industry Ministry. This is one example of many success stories of late in the area of new industrial products.

Vaccine search

Turkey is now in a good position to manage the drug process without the need for active ingredients. Since March, the early days of the pandemic, Turkey plunged into 18 drug and vaccine projects to fight the novel Coronavirus, and is making steady progress. Nearly 400 researchers and 49 institutions as well as universities, public research centres, and private sector organisations simultaneously carried out 10 treatment drug and eight vaccine projects. Vaccines made in Turkey will not only benefit its citizens and but many around the globe. President Erdoğan has also participated in the EU-led joint vaccine fund to fight against the virus and is strongly committed to not leaving anyone behind in vaccine provision.

Working together to fight a common enemy

Today we face the most serious challenges in our region, the continent and the world. We are all in this fight together. There is no room for narrow considerations, we need to sail the ship as one. In the course of the vicious virus, which has claimed the lives of many across the globe, Turkey has rose to the challenge to protect its own but also extend the hand of friendship to others around the globe. It’s comprehensive approach and practical measures to minimise the impact of the virus has been noteworthy and model to be emulated. But for a pandemic of this nature, there is never any room for complacency.


Author

Dr Cevdet Yimaz

A Member of Parliament from AK Parti, he is the Deputy Chairman responsible for Foreign Affairs and is a Former Minister of Development

After completing his further education at the Middle East Technical University Department of Public Administration, Yılmaz completed an MA in International Relations at Denver University, USA and a doctorate in Political Science and Public Administration, Bilkent University.

He began his career as an expert at the Prime Ministry Undersecretariat of the State Planning Organisation, and then served as Director General of EU Affairs between 2003-2007. He became a member of the Central Monitoring and Steering Committee of the EU Education and Youth Programs; and the National Agency, ATAUM.

He was elected as Deputy for the city of Bingöl in Eastern Turkey in 2007, then subsequently in 2011, 2015 and 2018. He was also elected as Deputy from Diyarbakır in 2015 elections. He served as a member of Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Committee and became head of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Turkish Group. Being appointed Minister of State for the 60th government in 2009, Yılmaz was appointed Minister of Development for the 61st, 62nd and 64th government, and Deputy Prime Minister during the 63rd government.

After being elected for the Central Decision Making Board of the AK Party Headquarters in 2016, Yılmaz served as the Vice Chairman of the AK Party for Media and Publicity, and then Economic Affairs.


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Published in London by Centre for British-Turkish Understanding