In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Nagehan Tokdoğan posted a note at the entrance to her apartment block in Ankara.
“I can shop for neighbours over the age of 65 … feel free to ask for help at number 7,” it read.
Tokdoğan, an academic researcher, came up with the idea when she saw an elderly neighbour struggling with shopping bags on her way to the local market; at the time, those over 65 had been put under strict curfew.
“We need small but effective means of social solidarity,” Tokdoğan wrote on Twitter later that day, attaching a photograph of her note. The tweet went viral, prompting other users to put up similar notes in their own apartment blocks.
Tokdoğan told Inside Turkey that ordinary people needed to take the initiative in times of such crisis, adding, “In order to create an atmosphere of solidarity, we need to show examples of it.”
A range of grassroots initiatives have sprung up across Turkey to help people where the state has been unable or unwilling to support them amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Traditional practices – like paying in advance for items at bakeries for those who can’t afford them – have become more popular, while scores of volunteer networks now exist to deliver food and supplies to people in need. Even well-known chefs at some of Istanbul’s most exclusive restaurants are running solidarity kitchens, with volunteers supplying free food to health workers and poor families.
In early April, food critic Ebru Erke and chef Umut Karakuş set up Stay Safe, initially to provide food for over-65s. Working from a kitchen provided by the local council in Istanbul’s Fenerbahçe neighbourhood, volunteer chefs make two meals a day for 1,200 people. Once the food is cooked, it is packaged and distributed to people who have registered with the municipality.
“At the beginning, we limited ourselves to people over 65, but many other people were in need,” Erke told Inside Turkey. “A group of construction workers couldn’t get back to their hometown, so we brought them a meal. Health workers were staying in a hotel, so we brought them food too.”
Fıccın restaurant, in the central Istanbul neighbourhood of Beyoğlu, is also providing aid. Leyla Kılıç, one of Fıccın’s founding partners, said that they decided to use their resources to feed those in need after the government closed the restaurants. Friends of the restaurant donated money to help cover expenses.
“We don’t have massive amounts of cash but we are trying to support poor migrant families and healthcare workers,” Kılıç said. “We have oil, flour, fresh vegetables – and our kitchen.”
At first, Fıccın cooked for staff at three hospitals that were assigned to treat Covid-19 patients, focusing on night-shift workers who were unable to buy food because shops were closed. Like Erke and Karakuş, they have since been feeding other healthcare workers and groups of refugees, via a migrants’ aid organisation. At Ramadan, Kılıç said, Fıccın distributed iftar and sahur dishes.
Mehmet Ufuk Özcan, a sociologist at Istanbul University, said that the coronavirus pandemic had increased stress, fear and anxiety in many, creating a “narrowed world” in which people limited social contact and engagement.
He noted that solidarity initiatives and other aid efforts tended to take place on a local or individual level.
“It is hard to find examples of long-term, sustainable and effective solidarity in civil society,” he continued, warning that temporary aid initiatives were no substitute for larger-scale political solutions.
“These limited practices don’t represent a truly collective solution,” Özcan said. “There’s no individual solution to a global problem.”
But Kılıç said that while local initiatives could not address larger, structural inequalities, grassroots responses still played an important role.
She noted that the volunteer effort had built close ties between her colleagues and the surrounding community.
“There were already some families who were in need which we have been trying to help for years, but this period taught us how to reach them, how to develop strong relationships and how to make this aid sustainable,” she said. “Whatever we do, we know that it won’t be enough, and of course it would be more efficient if this aid was provided by the government. But as long as these kinds of initiatives exist, we will support them. Our kitchen is open.”