Tobacco Shop (Credit: Nimet Kıraç)

As summer approached, soaring Covid-19 cases prompted Turkey’s government to announce a short, three-week lockdown at the end of April. The measures seem to have brought infections down, with new cases of the virus running at around 5,000 a day in June, compared to over 40,000 a day in April. But the stop-start nature of Turkey’s lockdowns has also exacerbated feelings among some people that the burden of the pandemic is not being shared equally.

Ramazan Gözübüyük, a 24 year-old waiter in the southern Turkish city of Adana, has been eagerly awaiting the lifting of lockdown restrictions so he can start a new job. Gözübüyük moved to Adana five years ago, for university, and has supported his studies by working – a task that has become increasingly difficult during the pandemic.

“I couldn’t pay rent,” Gözübüyük told Inside Turkey, explaining that he had moved back to his family home in Osmaniye province twice during the past year, because of lockdown restrictions that have forced bars and cafes to repeatedly close. The last place he worked at was only open for a month before the most recent set of restrictions were imposed in early 2021. “Since I wasn’t on their insurance yet, I received zero financial support.”

On 1 June, Gözübüyük was eagerly awaiting the news that a restaurant in central Adana where he has been offered a job would be allowed to open up. Instead, after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with his cabinet, the government announced that the country’s hospitality industry would have to wait until July before fully reopening. For the moment, they must continue with take-away and delivery services only.

Muzaffer Ceyhan, street vendor. (Credit: Nimet Kıraç)

“This isn’t a full lockdown,” Muzaffer Ceyhan, a 59-year-old street vendor in Adana told Inside Turkey, “[But] this is fully killing us.” Around 58 per cent of Turkey’s labour force work in service industry jobs, according to official figures from 2020. 

“On most days, I haven’t been able to sell once,” Ceyhan said, showing his cart full of nuts from the Black Sea, eastern pistachio and traditional sticky fig paste. 

“While politicians attended packed congress meetings and rallies, we were paralysed,” said Ceyhan, who has been selling nuts for over 40 years. He feels that the government has been hypocritical in allowing some large gatherings to go ahead – such as the recent rallies in support of Palestinians – while restricting traders’ ability to make a living. 

On 16 May, hundreds of people attended the funeral of a leader in the Islamist Nur Movement in southeastern Şanlıurfa province. The previous evening, Istanbul’s Beşiktaş Soccer Club won the Turkish Super League and thousands celebrated on the streets for hours, honking and parading in convoys across Turkey’s provinces.

Perhaps mindful of the lira’s falling value, Turkey has made steps to reopen the country to tourists, lifting a requirement for PCR tests for more than 10 countries. Russia – an important source of tourism – has announced it will resume charter flights on 21 June. 

This has also proved to be a sensitive issue. A video posted online on 14 May by the official tourist board Go Turkey, which featured tourism personnel wearing yellow masks bearing the slogan “Enjoy, I’m vaccinated”, was deleted after widespread criticism. 

“You feel insulted,” said Sakin Özlü, the 38-year-old co-owner of Dost Balık, a fish restaurant in central Adana.

“We’ve lost around one billion liras since the pandemic. We didn’t get any help. I don’t know if we can continue to keep this place open,” Özlü said, explaining his restaurant employs 16 people. 

According to Hayri Kozanoğlu, an economist and columnist for the newspaper BirGün, the partial application of lockdown rules has caused considerable upset among the Turkish population. “Double standards have wounded the public conscience the most in this lockdown period,” Kozanoğlu said. 

An example of the double standard, said the economist, was that while delegates who attended the recent governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) congress were given vaccinations, “the citizen has to wait”.

A further problem, according to Kozanoğlu, is that not enough money has been spent on social support to make lockdowns effective. Turkey has spent 60 million lira on support measures so far, he said, but this amounts to just over 1% of GDP.

“For a full lockdown Melbourne [in Australia], for example, took serious measures by strict quarantining, and was willing to pay the financial price,” Kozanoğlu said.

In Turkey, construction work has continued during lockdowns, public transportation has been active and factories and mosques remained open. Bans on the sale of non-essential items during lockdowns have caused upset, however, with the sale of alcohol and tobacco at times being prohibited.

“Of course they wanted to ban alcohol and smoking,” said Tolga Özütükenmez, a 19-year-old employee of a tobacco shop in central Adana. Özütükenmez said he suspected a religious motive behind the bans. “They used Covid-19 as an excuse.”

Critics of Turkey’s conservative government often accuse it of wanting to roll back secular freedoms. In his statement on 1 June, Erdoğan appeared to give weight to these fears when he announced that while other lockdown restrictions would be lifted, a midnight curfew for musical events would be introduced. “Take no offence, but no-one has the right to disturb others at night,” the president said. 

On social media, the phrase “we do take offence” circulated among Turkish social media users unhappy with the decision. These even included supporters of the government, such as the popular singer Demet Akalın, who posted a one-word message – Anlayamadık???, or “we don’t understand” – in response to Erdoğan’s announcement. 

“Music cannot be banned based on a party’s ideology. Stop playing with musicians’ lives,” wrote another singer, Mahsun Kırmızıgül, on Twitter.

Kaya Demirer, president of the Turkish Restaurant and Entertainment Association (TURYID), told Inside Turkey that Erdoğan’s tourism minister has assured him the restrictions on music will be gradually lifted once people aged 18 start to receive vaccinations in July. Demirer pointed out that playing music outdoors after midnight is already banned in areas near schools, hospitals and hotels, but he acknowledged that Erdoğan’s statement was ambiguous. “The way he put it made one question whether restrictions would go beyond Covid,” Demirer said.

Inside Turkey contacted several members of the scientific advisory board set up to help the Turkish government counter the pandemic, but they declined to comment.