Turkey is finally getting results from the tight measures it took to overcome the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Istanbul, which has been the center of this third wave and has the highest number of cases, reported a 35% drop in daily cases and a 25% decline in the number of hospitalized patients. Overall, the number of cases fell in most of the 81 provinces, while the “positive” rate in nationwide tests decreased to 8%, the lowest in the past three months.
A full lockdown imposed on April 29 certainly played a role in the dramatic decline, which also led to a 12% drop in deaths and a 3% decline in the number of critically ill patients.
Experts say the actual outcome of the full lockdown, which is set to end on May 17, will be visible on Thursday and Friday when millions will celebrate Ramadan Bayram, also known as Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday that usually sees millions travel across the country, visiting their relatives and neighbors. But those two days are more meaningful in terms of marking the end of two weeks, a period which determines whether the cases would follow an upward or downward trend after the start of restrictions. The reproduction rate of the virus, known as the “R number” and represents the average number of people a person with the virus is likely to infect, is currently at 0.7. Based on this, authorities expect the daily cases could reach levels of 8,000 to 9,000 on May 17, slightly higher than the number predicted by the government when the lockdown was announced.
A major concern is the return of those who traveled to their hometowns in the inner regions of the country or to vacation resort towns in the south, a day or a few days before the start of lockdown, which included an intercity travel ban. The end of the lockdown also means a return, for thousands, to big cities in the west that are hot spots of the coronavirus. Frequent inspections against violation of restrictions by police ensured an absence of crowding, one of the main reasons for infections to spread, in those places they traveled to. But the number of those infected after traveling is still unclear. The Interior Ministry announced on Monday that more than 79,000 people were subject to “criminal and administrative measures” for violating the lockdown between May 3 and May 10. Lockdown violations carry a fine of TL 3,150 ($381).
However, once the lockdown ends, these people will return to the cities where they live in close quarters in apartment blocks and will likely visit friends and relatives, triggering a concern of new infections. Bayram greetings, which were scrapped this year due to the lockdown, may take place after May 17 instead. Experts call for new measures to prevent late bayram visits.
A Cabinet meeting on May 17, or sometime later that week, will decide on whether the tight restrictions short of full lockdown would remain in place, or whether the lockdown would be prolonged. The government is expected to relax some restrictions once the number of cases drops below 10,000. Another option is lifting some restrictions and imposing new ones after a week if cases climb up again.
It is expected that the government would take normalization steps after the lockdown, with the reopening of some businesses and schools. Small shops like barbers and tailors will be allowed to open while the eighth and 12th grades of schools will be reopened for in-person education if lockdown is lifted. Likewise, restaurants and cafes would be allowed to host customers, but in a limited manner. Crowded events, like weddings and funerals, on the other hand, will remain subject to restrictions.