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Homeland Security

Istanbul Battles Coronavirus Behind Closed Doors

By Dorian Jones March 25, 2020

Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, is at the center of the country's efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. Authorities are ramping up restrictions, as the number of infections increase.

On Tuesday, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced the pandemic's latest figures – seven new deaths, bringing the death toll to 44, with a total of 1,872 infections.

With a population of more than 16 million people, Istanbul accounts for a fifth of Turkey's population. It is seen as an indicator for the entire country's ability to win or lose in its battle against COVID-19.

Every night across Istanbul, like in other Turkish towns and cities, people cheer and whistle from their balconies or windows in support of the country's medical workers.

The city is learning to live behind closed doors, including its children, who woke up Monday morning with their schools shuttered in the latest effort by Ankara to contain the coronavirus.

Schools closed for two weeks, but many believe that remains an optimistic target, given that the epidemic remains in its infancy.

COVID-19 came late to Turkey. The first official infection was reported two weeks ago.

Among the first steps taken by Ankara to contain the virus was to close cinemas, theaters and restaurants until further notice.

With its culture of street restaurants, Istanbul is a city that loves to live outside. Now, the streets are silent and empty, devoid of bustling tables of customers enjoying the city's famed culinary pleasures.

Even prayers at mosques are suspended, possibly a first in the city's long history.

Despite the severe measures, there is a growing awareness among Istanbul's residents about the dangers of the virus.

"Definitely there is a big danger, both for our country and the world," said Muhammet, a student. "Immediately, precautions should be taken. We have no doubt scientists and health workers are doing their best."

But others are more critical of the government's response.

"They hid the virus. My nephew works at a hospital. There are six or seven virus victims at a time, when they kept saying that there is no virus. Who are they kidding?" said a retired woman who declined to give her name. "How come there isn't? Why did they deny this? Why didn't they take precautions, like stopping the planes coming to Istanbul?"

Ankara denies such criticism, insisting it is reacting with speed and transparency.

Private hospitals on the front line

Istanbul's numerous and well-equipped private hospitals are being put on the front line to fight the virus.

"The government has declared all private hospitals "pandemic hospitals," which gives it the authority to force them to accept corona patients and to set aside the facilities to treat them," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.

"Medical residents have been drafted into active duty," he added. "The administration is trying to soothe public concerns about a health crisis by assurances that staff, facilities, medicine and test kits are adequate for even dire scenarios."

Yesilada pointed out, however, that anecdotal evidence suggests there is growing criticism about exhaustion, poor safety standards, a lack of masks, gloves, and other vital equipment for hospital staff.

On Sunday, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced that authorities had raided depots belonging to medical suppliers suspected of hoarding vital equipment, including face masks.

The Turkish Medical Association warned Sunday that inadequate regulations meant that all health care professionals are in danger of being infected. It also added that Turkey must immediately install new intensive care units.

The Health Ministry rejected such criticisms as unfounded.

The Interior Ministry introduced a nationwide measure controlling the number of people using food shops to ensure against overcrowding.

Earlier, people over 65 were banned from leaving home.

Istanbul municipal authorities have even started removing benches to discourage people from sitting and chatting.

Police cars are touring Istanbul's popular seafront areas telling people to go home. For now, Ankara has refrained from introducing compulsory lockdown measures for most of the population.

But in Istanbul, much of the population is already heeding government calls to stay home and only work if essential.

The use of the city's public transportation has collapsed in two weeks. According to figures released by Istanbul's Municipal Authority on Sunday, 800,000 people used the transport network, down from 4.8 million users two weeks prior – a 68% drop.

Istanbul's mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), is calling on the city to stay strong.

"Together, we will get through. Our country, our city, can be an example for the world on how to keep the coronavirus cases and fatalities low," he said Imamoglu at a recent press conference. "My fellow citizens of Istanbul, we do have difficult days ahead of us, but everything will be beautiful. Don't lose hope."

In its 3,000-year history Istanbul has faced plagues and invasions. It is now bracing itself for this latest challenge.

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