April 24, 2020 | Insight

Erdogan’s COVID-19 Cover-up Hampers Turkey’s Coronavirus Response

April 24, 2020 | Insight

Erdogan’s COVID-19 Cover-up Hampers Turkey’s Coronavirus Response

Turkey has overtaken China as the country with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases outside the United States and European Union, reporting more than 100,000 cases as of April 23. Despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s claim that his government’s response has been one of the most effective in the world, a growing number of studies show that Ankara has underreported Turkey’s COVID-19 cases – an ill-advised policy that hampers an effective response.

Through February and early March, as the pandemic spread to Iran, Turkey’s eastern neighbor, and to southern Europe, Ankara insisted that the country remained free of COVID-19. As late as March 9, Turkey’s government-controlled media tried to entice travelers to come visit what they claimed to be a “coronavirus-free destination.” Two days later, Turkey finally announced its first case, while the country’s health minister continued to downplay the threat, claiming, “If there is an infection in the country, it is very limited.”

By early April, Turkey’s COVID-19 infection curve had become the steepest in the world. The Erdogan government’s crackdown on journalists and social media users prevented critical coverage of the pandemic, blocking Turkish citizens’ access to reliable public health information. The Turkish president further exacerbated the problem by waging a campaign against opposition mayors, going so far as to block municipal accounts earmarked for aiding residents, shutter soup kitchens run by the municipalities, and launch criminal probes against the Istanbul and Ankara mayors.

As Erdogan’s heavy-handed methods silenced any critical debate over the extent of Turkey’s coronavirus epidemic, Turkish academics abroad started scrutinizing the official figures released by Ankara. After Turkey finally acknowledged its first coronavirus case on March 11, Ergin Kocyildirim of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine published an op-ed whose title warned, “Turkey’s Coronavirus Coverup Is A Disaster Waiting To Happen.”

On March 28, New Jersey-based financial analyst Inan Dogan estimated, “1 out of every 150 people in Turkey is infected with the coronavirus,” forecasting that the death toll would exceed 5,000 by mid-April. Similarly, in an April 3 interview in The New Yorker, Emrah Altindis of Boston College Department of Biology warned about a “tsunami” on its way to Turkish cities.

Other Turkish-American academics turned to publicly available mortality statistics to expose the flaws in Ankara’s official COVID-19 fatality figures. Cengiz Zopluoglu of the University of Miami compared the number of people aged 65 and over who died in Istanbul in March 2019 with the corresponding number for March 2020. He found that there had been an increase of 269 deaths from the previous year, a number that should raise eyebrows considering that Turkey’s official COVID-19 death toll was only 131 people across the entire country by the end of March. Onur Altindag of Bentley University calculated that there were 2,158 cases of “excess mortality” in Istanbul alone between March 12 and April 11.

Similarly, Abdullah Aydogan of Columbia University noticed that between March 20 and 27, the number of deaths among individuals aged 65 or older was 325 higher than the average for that same period over the previous 10 years. In an April 21 examination of Turkey’s implausibly consistent and low official death rate, Aydogan calculated that during the 10-day period analyzed, Turkey’s official death rate varied less than that in any other country during the corresponding period, raising suspicions of data manipulation in official reports.

Data compiled by The New York Times affirmed the presence of an unusual spike in deaths, prompting its Turkey correspondent, Carlotta Gall, to conclude, “Turkey is grappling with a far bigger calamity from the coronavirus than official figures and statements would suggest.” During a press conference on April 22, Turkey’s health minister attacked The New York Times report, calling it “a news piece put together with anti-Turkish motivations.” He claimed the latest spike in recorded deaths in Istanbul stems from the Interior Ministry’s March 26 measures restricting the repatriation of the city’s deceased for burial in their hometowns.

Experts were quick to refute the health minister’s line of reasoning, noting that the mortality statistics released by the Istanbul municipality have always recorded deaths within the metropolitan boundaries, not the number of burials. Euronews pointed out that the number of deceased Istanbul residents had started to rise even before Turkey’s first confirmed coronavirus death – hence long before the restrictions on the repatriation of the deceased.

The Turkish government’s suspected attempt to manipulate COVID-19 infection and mortality statistics is likely to exacerbate the public health crisis. Harvard University-trained economist Emre Deliveli warned, “If nothing else, under-reporting the number of deaths could also instill a false sense of security in the public that the spread of the virus is under control.” Turkey has since censored its own data and no longer allows users to search mortality by age groups on its e-government portal.

The Erdogan government’s ill-advised attempts to hide the full extent of the COVID-19 epidemic in Turkey continue to hamper the country’s coronavirus response. It is time for the Turkish president to realize that this is one crisis he cannot cover up through government-sanctioned propaganda and a crackdown on critical voices and the opposition.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Philip Kowalski is a research associate. For more analysis from Aykan and Philip, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan and Philip on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @philip_kowalski. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.