Turkish mayors accuse government of coronavirus cover-up

Claim of mismatch between health ministry statistics and data being received at a local level

Pedestrians wear face masks in Ankara, the Turkish capital, which is home to 5.5 million people. Photograph:  Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

Pedestrians wear face masks in Ankara, the Turkish capital, which is home to 5.5 million people. Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP via Getty Images

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The mayors of Turkey’s two biggest cities have accused the central government of covering up the true scale of a coronavirus resurgence in the country.

Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu and Mansur Yavas, the mayor of Ankara, said there was a mismatch between the statistics being published by the health ministry and the data they were receiving on a local level.

The Turkish health minister, Fahrettin Koca, has warned that the country – like many nations across Europe – faces an uptick in cases and deaths. Figures released on Saturday night showed 1,549 new cases in the previous 24 hours and 39 deaths, the highest level since mid-May.

But Mr Imamoglu and Mr Yavas, who are both members of the opposition Republican People’s party, said they were seeing death numbers close to the national figures in each of their individual cities.

“Right now, Istanbul is almost equal with the Turkey data – the data that is being given,” Mr Imamoglu said in a webinar on coronavirus organised by another opposition party on Saturday.

“These contradictory numbers are really bothering us. I’ve written to the health ministry four or five times. I personally said: what is this? ...There needs to be transparency,” he added.

His concerns were echoed by Mr Yavas, who said that a similar phenomenon was taking place in Ankara, the Turkish capital, which is home to 5.5 million people.

“Last Tuesday, there were 17 deaths [in Ankara],” he said. “But I look at the figures announced on the same day, and across Turkey there are 20, 21 or 22 people [who died from Covid-19 on that day].”

Mr Yavas added: “What benefit is there to under-reporting the numbers? In my view, it should be the other way round ... Otherwise people won’t stop going to weddings, going to funerals, they won’t stop gathering together.”

Coronavirus data

A Turkish health ministry spokesman declined to comment on the remarks by the two opposition mayors. Mr Koca, the health minister, has repeatedly insisted that Turkey has always taken a transparent approach to coronavirus data.

The mayors of Istanbul and Ankara have emerged as key centres of opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after winning control of the country’s two biggest municipalities in local elections last year. Both have used their positions to expose allegations of corruption and waste that they say took place during the 25 years that their cities were under the control of Mr Erdogan’s ruling party and its political forebears.

During the coronavirus pandemic, they have sought to challenge the Turkish president’s narrative that the opposition is incapable of governing and providing services by setting up schemes aimed at helping those hit by the economic fallout from the outbreak.

Their decision to go public with their concerns about the Covid-19 statistics follows warnings by Turkish doctors and medical associations, who have said for weeks that central authorities were downplaying the scale of the problem.

While the original epicentre of the outbreak was Istanbul, a sprawling megacity of 16 million people, doctors say that a normalisation process that began in June has spread the virus across the country of 83 million.

Worst-affected region

Official data showed that the worst-affected region in terms of new cases last week was southeast Anatolia, which lies near the border with Syria and includes the cities of Gaziantep and Sanliurfa.

Turkish policymakers have been reluctant to impose sweeping new lockdown measures for fear of causing further damage to the economy or harming the tourism sector, which is a vital source of hard currency in a country that is heavily dependent on foreign financing.

Doubts about the official data could harm efforts by the tourism industry to get back on its feet in the final months of this year’s summer season.

In total, according to official statistics, the country has had 267,000 cases of coronavirus and 6,300 related deaths. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020