(Credit: Thgusstavo Santana)

On 21 March, Turkey’s interior ministry announced an enforced curfew on people aged over 65, as well as anyone with a chronic disease. The targeted lockdown, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, was aimed at protecting vulnerable people and it lasted for almost 2 months.

These measures were partially lifted in May, and as of this week, those over 65 are allowed to be outside between 10 am and 8 pm. 

According to the US-based Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resources Center, Turkey has so far reported more than 173,000 COVID-19 cases with 4,746 deaths. 

Last week, Turkish lawmakers expressed opposing views on continued restrictions on elderly people. While some demanded continuation of stay at home orders for people aged above 65 years, others asked for the lifting of restrictions, arguing that lockdown has caused additional problems for those with chronic diseases. 

Although complete lockdown was very hard on Turkey’s senior citizens, many of them claim that stigma that they have faced since the beginning of the pandemic was much worse.

When the curfew was first established, many older people continued to gather in parks and streets as usual, to chat or have tea. In response, municipalities began to remove public benches – and as part of its measures, on 21 March the government introduced a fine of 392 liras for breaking curfew. Some ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to enforce the rules: footage shared on social media showed members of the public warning the elderly to stay at home, not always politely. One video showed people dropping water-filled balloons from a window onto two older people sitting outside. 

“Senior citizens were treated like a walking coronavirus,” Faruk Yaşar Gürdal, chair of the Gerontologists’ Association, told Inside Turkey. The policy marked a change from the “voluntary quarantine” promoted by the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his health minister Fahrettin Koca up to that point. 

Faruk Yaşar Gürdal (Credit: Gerontologists’ Association)

Although the motivation for the curfew was sound, it was carried out in a way that “lacks empathy”, according to Gürdal. “There were two enforcers of the ban: police, who do the job well if they’ve been trained properly, and wider society, from young people to the middle aged, from shop vendors to the media.” Gürdal said that parts of the latter have “chosen to punish older people by getting angry at them, mocking them on social media and making them the subject of news reports”. 

Ufuk Doğan, general coordinator of the Senior Citizens’ Policy Association, thinks this has exacerbated existing prejudice towards the elderly. “When the media created the misconception that older people were carriers of the virus, younger people started to cross the road when they saw them [in public],” he said. “The elderly were shouted at in the street and asked ‘what business do you have being out?’ or told to go home.”

Ufuk Doğan (Credit: Senior Policies Association)

In the early days of the pandemic, a series of social media posts by the health minister Fahrettin Koca, accompanied by news coverage of COVID-19-related deaths, emphasised the risks to the elderly. However, this framing also led to stigmatisation and restrictive policies. Municipal authorities in the cities of Adana, Antalya and Konya deactivated elderly citizens’ transport passes. There have also been incidents of older people being shouted at by members of the public – or in on case, having balloons filled with water thrown at them. In the central Anatolian city of Nevşehir, the local authority launched a hotline called “Hello? Seniors!” for members of the public to report elderly people seen in the street.

For people subject to the curfew, this only added to their worries during a pandemic. “The uncertainty was highly disturbing,” said Nurhan Suerdem, a 65-year-old Istanbul author. “We wondered what kind of world we would encounter when we can finally left the house. Am I going to be able to visit my daughter in the US? Is the old man I buy simit [a bread snack] from still going to be there?“

Nurhan Suerdem (Credit: Her social media account)

Suerdem thinks that the health minister’s public statements have helped encourage the perception that older people were responsible for spreading the virus. Since the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Turkey on 11 March, Koca has repeatedly stressed the impact of coronavirus on the elderly. On 2 April, for instance, he wrote on Twitter that “it’s notable that 82 per cent of the patients we lost in the past 24 hours were over the age of 60”. 

On 21 March, he tweeted that senior citizens “should adhere to the curfew. The risk of death increases with age”, followed by the comment that “it’s not uncommon to see giants fall these days”. After 2 April, the health minister started to mention older people less frequently in his social media posts, perhaps aware that they were contributing to stigma.

Globally, older people are at greater risk of dying from a COVID-19 infection. Around 9 per cent of Turkey’s population are over 65, a low proportion compared to its European neighbours. A World Health Organisation report published on 3 May suggests Turkey – unlike Spain or Italy, for instance – does not face particularly acute risks related to old age. 

Professor Kayıhan Pala, a leading public health expert, told Inside Turkey that while a curfew for the elderly was right in principle, there were problems with the way it was enforced, applying the same rules to people who lived alone to those living with a spouse or in multi-generational households. “We can’t judge how effective this method was, because the government doesn’t publish the age distribution of positive cases and deaths,” he said. 

Pala also said that communication has been a problem. “Health literacy is low in our country. Unfortunately, as a society we don’t fully understand some basic concepts,” he said. “We isolated our seniors to protect them, not because they were carriers. But I think there was an issue conveying that message, especially at first.” 

Pala believes it was a mistake not to make allowances for elderly people who needed to work, or to allow time outside for physical and mental well-being. On 10 May the curfew laws were amended to allow the over-65s to go outside for three hours on Sundays – the first time in almost two months that 7.5 million people were allowed to leave their homes. 

Meanwhile, Suerdem feels that the virus has been a reminder to older people of their own vulnerability. “I know I’m getting old, but I don’t live like an old person,” she said. Her first book of short stories was published in December, and she had been thinking about writing more when the pandemic reached Turkey. “It made me think of myself as a potential victim. There was hurtful rhetoric about the elderly on social media, and the virus just made it worse. I saw posts suggesting that senior citizens were creatures who could be destroyed by spraying insecticide on them.”

The curfew came with its own health risks. Psychologist Serkan Elçi said that the disruption to people’s daily routines can encourage depression. “Everyone over 65 suddenly had to stop their daily walks or their daily visit to the park,” Elçi said. “They couldn’t socialise, do their shopping or go to the mosque. They were culturally stranded.” 

Serkan Elçi: The uniting power of social media will be useful (Credit: himself)

Elçi said that these daily tasks, along with goals for the future, are what keep people going. He recommended using smartphones and social media instead, to relieve stress. “Video chatting with a grandchild, seeing what your relatives in Germany are up to, talking about old times and reliving memories were helpful.”

According to a 2019 survey by the polling organisation KONDA, 17 percent of Turkish people over 65 live alone. 

On 24 March, Turkey’s interior ministry set up a “Goodwill Social Solidarity Group” to run errands for people under curfew, with a telephone service that elderly and infirm people can call to arrange home deliveries. Bülent A., a 66-year-old retired manager who lives in the western province of Tekirdağ, has used the hotline and said that the person he spoke with was polite and friendly.

Bulent A. (Credit: Personal archive)

“I was in my summer home in Şarköy, Tekirdağ when the curfew was established. I’m alone here,” he said. “I don’t have any serious health conditions, I just wanted a spray for occasional leg pains and some alcohol-based cologne. I called the police since I couldn’t go outside, and they directed me to the Goodwill Social Solidarity Group. The young person I spoke with said that they could get me anything I wanted as long as I paid. I said okay. They took five or six hours to get here but they were very nice and polite. I was happy with their service.” Many people have also been using online retailers to do their shopping. 

Not everybody can afford to take up these services, however. According to KONDA’s data, 13 percent of people over the age of 65 still work for a living. Many working elderly are unregistered, and therefore lack employment protections. 

Ufuk Doğan of the Senior Citizens’ Policy Association said that his organisation continues to campaign for better rights for the elderly, and has been organising food donations to people who’ve lost income. 

Social activities, mental health support and financial relief have become the most urgent issues for his organisation during the pandemic. Although the government’s Goodwill network delivers fresh food daily to the elderly, there is no specific state financial support available. The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is reportedly considering an increase in pensions, however.

Despite restrictions, some elderly people were unwilling to completely give up their daily routines. Retired worker Hüseyin Ergen, a 67-year-old Istanbul resident, said that he regularly took a short walk around the house he has lived in for 30 years. On one of these forbidden walks he was spotted by the police. “Sir, do us a favour and go home,” they told Ergen. But they didn’t fine him.