Post-lockdown jump in coronavirus infections rattles Turkish officials

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Turkey may have to adopt a harder line on social interactions following a worrying jump in coronavirus infections, but it has no plans to reverse an easing of lockdown restrictions aimed at reviving the economy, officials say.

This month restaurants and cafes reopened, intercity flights and car travel resumed and weekend stay-home orders were lifted.

However, new COVID-19 cases have roughly doubled to 1,600 per day since June 1, official data shows.

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As Turks have poured into the streets, malls and parks or taken vacations - often without face masks - authorities have urged caution and said new cases are emerging in more rural central and southeastern provinces.

One senior government official called the new infections a “a serious problem” and said steps may be taken after President Tayyip Erdogan chairs a cabinet meeting this week.

A security guard checks the body temperature of a customer at the entrance of the spice market in Istanbul, Turkey, June 1, 2020. (Reuters)
A security guard checks the body temperature of a customer at the entrance of the spice market in Istanbul, Turkey, June 1, 2020. (Reuters)

Officials told Reuters data over the next few days will be critical in deciding whether steps - such as broader enforcement of masks and social distancing - may be required for some groups or regions to avoid a second wave of infections.

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But with the economy lurching out of a near stand-still since mid-March and many still out of work, there is little appetite to do anything that could hurt consumption, tourism or manufacturing industry, they said.

Wearing masks in public is currently compulsory in about half of Turkey’s provinces, but not in the big cities.

Respect the rules

“We need to ensure the implementation of these rules (on masks and social distancing) as a society. If we cannot follow them then we need to take steps to make sure people are abiding by these rules,” said Ates Kara, a member of Turkey’s advisory Science Council.

Infections this month were higher than expected due in part to the difficulty of getting the message across and to people believing the virus was “completely eliminated”, said Kara, a professor of paediatric infectious disease at Hacettepe University’s Medical School.

Turkey ranks 12th globally in coronavirus cases at nearly 180,000, with more than 4,800 deaths.

At its height, the outbreak centered on the main cities of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara but in the last two weeks 450 infections were reported in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir.

One health official in Diyarbakir said people were failing to wear masks properly due to hot weather and that 24,000 people had been quarantined in their homes.

Turkey’s top medical association this week criticized the decision to ease restrictions too soon.

Concerns about a second wave have also gripped Italy, Britain and Iran after restrictions were eased. China is grappling with a resurgence just as its economy is trying to recover from earlier shutdowns.

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Turkish growth has sharply contracted in recent months and most economists expect the economy to shrink this year.

Turkey will take a “measured approach” in re-imposing any restrictions in order to shield the economy, a second senior official told Reuters.

“It is too early to take drastic measures again (which) would cost Turkey’s (economy) the second half of 2020.”

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