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Turkey Struggles During Pandemic To Protect Public Health, Economy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to shift our focus abroad now to Turkey. The country says it has vaccinated more than a million front-line workers against the coronavirus and are now vaccinating people who are over the age of 80. The situation there is still dire, though. There are more than 2.4 million cases of COVID-19 in the country. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: A few months ago, Turkey suddenly shot up the ranks of countries with the highest daily number of new COVID-19 cases. It wasn't some virulent new strain of the virus. The government simply began reporting all the confirmed cases instead of only the most severe ones requiring hospitalization, as it had been doing. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca told reporters that when it was reporting several thousand new cases a day, the ministry had actually been reporting only a small fraction of the total number.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FAHRETTIN KOCA: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: "Not every COVID case is a hospital patient," he said, "because some people who test positive don't show any symptoms."

In fact, Koca said, 80% of the positive cases weren't being reported. That acknowledgement many months into the pandemic underscored Ankara's effort to keep the death rate low without strangling the economy. During the initial shock of rising cases last spring, Turkey did close its borders and set curfews, but the tightest restrictions applied only to those over 65 and under 20 years of age. Health advocates urged the government to do more. Dr. Guner Sonmez, a radiologist, says officials refused to take the painful step of shutting down businesses during the week.

GUNER SONMEZ: (Through interpreter) Our recommendations, like other scientists in Europe and elsewhere, was to have 14-day lockdowns. But this didn't happen. They tried to manage the pandemic with two- or three-day lockdowns and restrictions.

KENYON: Sonmez says as a doctor, he's near the head of the line to receive a vaccination. But he worries about Sinovac's effectiveness compared with vaccines other countries are getting. Similar mixed feelings emerged in chats with Istanbul residents. A 25-year-old freelance journalist who would only give her first name, Sanaa, is happy with the government's performance so far.

SANAA: The measures taken. They are efficient, as we can say. So the numbers decreased. In March, everything's going to be better.

KENYON: But Azimet and Azize Yucutepe have a different view. Both are in their 60s. Azimet says he's sure they'll both get the vaccine. But Azize says she's having second thoughts.

AZIZE YUCUTEPE: (Through interpreter) Well, whatever they say, I don't trust them. And therefore I don't trust the vaccine. Either. I'm not planning to take it. And yes, I will wait until the last possible day I can.

KENYON: Emrah Altindis, an assistant professor at Boston College who follows events in Turkey, says he sees two main problems so far. First, the vaccine is extremely expensive for lower-income families. And second, the developers of the highly effective Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can't produce enough doses quickly enough to meet the global demand. Altindis says they should share their knowledge more widely.

EMRAH ALTINDIS: So I would also recommend Turkey or any country to challenge the intellectual property rights now and start producing this effective and safe vaccine anywhere in the world, to be able to protect the people.

KENYON: Meanwhile, millions of people in Turkey are waiting to learn where their place in the vaccination line will be and whether there will be enough to go around.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENO AND TRISTAN DE LIEGE'S "REVERRING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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