Istanbul Turkey’s largest city and home to 16 million people is the economic heart of the country, with millions of people commuting daily. (Dorian Jones/VOA)
Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and home to 16 million people, is the economic heart of the country, with millions of people commuting daily. (Dorian Jones/VOA)

ISTANBUL - With Istanbul the epicenter of Turkey's COVID-19 epidemic, the city is becoming the political battleground over how to defeat the virus.  

Istanbul's mayor is calling for a city shutdown, but the Turkish president insists the wheels of the economy must continue to turn. 

Every day, millions of people in Istanbul go to work, potentially running a gantlet of infection. While the city’s schools and entertainment venues are closed like the rest of the country, many factories and businesses continue to function.   

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is resisting opposition party demands to introduce a nationwide shutdown. 

"Our most important sensitivity here is to continue production to sustain the supply of basic goods and support exports," Erdogan said last Monday. "Turkey is a country that needs to continue production and keep the wheels turning under all conditions and circumstances." 

But such a stance is causing concern among some businesses.

Istanbul shop keeper Burak believes there needs to be a full lockdown of Istanbul, but says compensation needs to be worked out by the government. (Dorian Jones/VOA)

"The businesses should all be closed," said shopkeeper Burak, who only wanted to be identified by his first name. "But if they are closed, stores like mine will not be able to pay their rents, cover the expenses for their personnel. There is no clear explanation for how the solution will be to cover our costs. 

"The government has mentioned that there will be a part-time payment solution,” he added. “My colleagues and some other friends in other businesses already applied more than two weeks ago for this procedure, but they haven't got any answers till today." 

Burak said the economy was weak before the epidemic. 

"I think our government also got caught in a financially difficult situation. That's why I think they will be prolonging the postponing of the shutdown as much as they can, to win time," he said. 

In a possible sign of limited state funds, Erdogan last week launched a national public appeal for donations to help support those worst affected by the epidemic. 

While resisting calls for a complete lockdown, the Erdogan government is enforcing a curfew on those younger than 20 and for those older than 65.    

Despite such moves, the coronavirus grip on Turkey tightens. The city accounts for most of the country's deaths and infections. 

Many commuters wear masks distributed by the Istanbul city authority to contain COVID-19, but Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu is calling for a lockdown of the city. (Dorian Jones/VOA)

In a desperate bid to control the virus, authorities issued masks to users of public transport, some of whose hours have now been curtailed. 

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) says Ankara must enforce a complete lockdown on the city, saying there are still too many people on the streets. 

"A 15% mobility in Istanbul means more than 2 million people, and this is very frightening," he said. "It's as much as the population of a prominent city in Europe. It is clear this current mobility is posing a threat, and this is why we say that we need a strict measure." 

Imamoglu says Istanbul, home to 16 million people, is now the front line for Turkey's battle against the virus. But he fears that too much time may have been lost. 

"It's very important because the measures you take for 16 million people and your methods of stopping the pandemic will save Turkey," he said, "since it is clear Istanbul has become the center of the pandemic in Turkey. If we had declared a stay-at-home order a week ago, we could have been in a very different position today. This is why we are insisting (for a shutdown)." 

Millions of people in Istanbul still commute to work despite the city being the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, as President Erdogan insists the "wheels of economy still need to turn." (Dorian Jones/VOA)

Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners says the cost of shutting down Turkey's largest city might be a price too high to pay for the government. 

 "Tax revenues are not coming in anymore, and you are shutting down industries with potentially 4 and 5 million workers," Yesilada said. "Even if the law doesn't dictate it, ethics, as well as good governance, will dictate that you pay some kind of compensation to these people so they don't starve or protest on the streets and the budget equation becomes unmanageable." 

But with reports that Erdogan's top medical advisers are also calling for a more extensive curfew, Erdogan appeared to open the door for such a move. 

"We won't need further measures if all our citizens keep themselves in voluntary quarantine," Erdogan said Sunday. "However, we may have to take much more advanced measures if the pandemic spreads and our citizens don't pay attention to the rules, such as staying at home, social distancing and hygiene." 

But some analysts warn that time may be running out for Istanbul and the country for the government to find the right balance to fighting the virus. 

"There is no way you can fight it unless you impose a Chinese-style, Italian-style very stringent curfew," Yesilada said. "But Erdogan has a small window of opportunity to enforce the curfew, because when summer comes, when the heat is 40 degrees in people’s small houses, you are not going to keep people in their homes. It's going to be impossible to enforce the curfew." 

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