ISTANBUL - Turkey is starting to ease COVID-19 restrictions, as the government claims success in containing the coronavirus. While infection and death rates are falling, concerns remain, the move may be premature, driven more by economic rather than health considerations. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
"May God gives us good business and protect us from corona," said Gul Ali Simsek as he opened his barbershop in Istanbul's Moda district.
Simsek's business has been in lockdown since March, as part of a nationwide shutdown of barbers, cafes, bars, restaurants and numerous other establishments.
But the lockdown was lifted on hairdressers and barbers, as the government lifted some COVID-19 controls.
"I am opening the shop with such excitement as if it is the first time. Because I missed it," said Simsek, holding back tears. "I missed the people. I am so used to here," gesturing to his barbershop.
Even though it was seven in the morning, Simsek didn't have to wait long for his regular customers.
"Brother Ali is my barber for almost 40 years. Since I was a child, he has cut my hair," said Yakup, who has a tailor shop nearby.
"We waited for this day too long," said Yakup, who asked that his last name not be used. "I hope it would be good for our nation, of course. With the condition that we all abide by the rules."
Simsek explains he has disinfected his shop and is wearing a mask and gloves following safety regulations issued by Turkey's National Barber Association.
Both men say they have suffered substantial economic losses, while struggling to live with the uncertainty of when restrictions will end.
On Monday, shopping malls opened for the first time since March. Customers entering some malls had their temperatures taken as part of efforts to contain the coronavirus.
Critics are questioning the opening of the malls, pointing out the health risks of confined places with large numbers of people.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pointing to declining COVID-19 infection and death rates, said the time is right to ease controls. On Sunday, people over the age of 65 were allowed out of their homes for four hours a day after a nearly two-month lockdown.
"Like all the countries in the world, they (the Turkish government) are caught between a rock and a hard place," said international relations expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul's Kadir Has University.
"How much should we engineer our policies that the health issues don't get out of hand? Second, what do we do to avoid the devastation of the economy, which was already very weak?" he asked.
Ozel says Turkey, through a combination of factors, including having Europe's youngest population, appears less vulnerable to infection. He says the country has large numbers of intensive care facilities, along with well-trained doctors and is among the most successful in Europe in containing the virus.
"Other than some major initial errors, the government has rather rapidly reacted to the threat," said Ozel.
"Turkey has done well, and in terms of the number of deaths per million inhabitants, it has done even better than Germany, which is the best western European country."
The Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus dashboard says Turkey currently has close to 140,000 infections and 3,841 deaths. On Monday, Turkey’s Health Ministry reported 1,114 new COVID-19 cases, 55 deaths and 3,089 people recovering.
The political opposition accuses the government of underreporting, a charge it denies. Observers point out similar claims have been made against many European countries.
But fears of rising complacency are starting to be voiced within the government. Photographs Friday of Istanbul's famous Istiklal shopping street crowded with people, many unmasked, alarmed Health Minister Fahrettin Koca.
"This is not a very good picture. It is too early for so many people to appear in a single photo frame. Let's try to stay at home. If we go out, let's wear face masks and adhere to social distancing rules," Koca wrote on Twitter.
Koca's reputation has surged during the epidemic, with one poll naming him the country's most popular politician.
Critics are warning the government's easing of restrictions threatens to accelerate complacency within the population, risking a surge in infections. On Wednesday, people under 20 (those working are exempt) will be allowed out of their homes for four hours, for the first time since March.
The government announced Monday the lockdown will end starting May 27 for people under 20 and over 65.
Erdogan is voicing caution. "We have seen the examples in the world of how complacency could lead to big catastrophes," he said Tuesday.
The Turkish president announced a new nationwide lockdown from May 16 to 19 to coincide with a public holiday.
Erdogan's balancing act between health and economic concerns comes amid mounting criticism that not enough is being done to alleviate the financial fallout of the pandemic.
"If Erdogan delivered 5,000 lira ($700) to every person at the beginning of the epidemic to help people get through, Erdogan would have been a national hero. But he didn't. There is a lot of economic pain," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of consulting group Global Source Partners.
"The government's allocation resources to the working population really wasn't sufficient,” Ozel said. “It is also debatable whether small- and medium-size enterprises received enough support from the government. One of the most staunch supporters of the government is shopkeepers, and they have been hit very hard."
But even business owners like barber Simsek say the hope instilled by returning to work is tempered by fear that Turkey is taking a gamble.
"Of course, there is fear. There is fear. You can't be without fear because this is not a matter of a joke. We have to be scared," he said, while applying the finishing touches to the haircut for friend and life-long customer Yakup.
Looking at his haircut, Yakup concurs.
"The future is uncertain; the limitations can be introduced again. But we are putting up our own fight as much as we can. There is not much more we can do."