Ankara, Turkey – As Turkey plans to ease coronavirus restrictions, the ruling party has come under fire for staging tight political rallies in the region with the country’s highest case rate.
In recent weeks, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has organized a series of rallies across the country, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended in person or by video call.
However, it was the events organized in the Black Sea provinces of Rize, Trabzon, Giresun and Ordu that drew particular criticism from medical figures and the opposition.
Turkey began reporting province-by-province weekly infection levels two weeks ago, and the four northeastern provinces have seen some of the highest numbers.
Rize has registered 200.08 cases per 100,000 population, according to the latest figures, while Trabzon has registered 207.54 cases.
Giresun had 217.51 and Ordu, the province with the highest infection rate in the country, 228.40.
By comparison, Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s two most populous provinces, recorded 68.23 and 35.39 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, respectively.
The fifth province with case levels over 200 per 100,000 – Samsun, which is out of 202.94 – lies to the west of Ordu.
Between them, the five provinces accounted for 17% of new COVID-19 cases in Turkey last week.
“We’re having a meeting during the pandemic and the room is filled to the brim,” Erdogan told convention in his hometown of Rize on February 15.
Sinan Adiyaman, a member of the Turkish Medical Association’s COVID-19 watchdog board, has linked party meetings to infection rates.
“The number of cases is increasing wherever the government holds congresses,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They also held a congress in [the Mediterranean city of] Mersin and the number of cases there have also increased. This is also the case in the Black Sea provinces as thousands of people attend these congresses.
Adiyaman added, “The government is ignoring recommendations and warnings from the Minister of Health, the World Health Organization, the Turkish Medical Association and other professional health organizations.”
‘The greatest precaution’
Ravza Kavakci Kan, AK Party parliament member for Istanbul, said congresses followed the rules on distance, hygiene and wearing masks.
Elderly party members were refused entry and letters were sent in advance warning people of the restrictions.
“To say that congresses, especially in the Black Sea region, have led to increases is not scientific and has no basis [in fact]She said, adding, “When we look at the recorded cases, there is no evidence to show that the congresses led to it. “
Kavakci Kan described the meetings as an essential part of the democratic process.
“I understand the concerns, but this is a process that has to take place,” she said.
“There were a lot of postponed events and a lot of district conventions were held with minimal attendance. We try to respect the rules and restrictions as much as possible. I understand all the criticisms, but we have tried to take the utmost care in this process.
The provincial party rallies are taking place ahead of the full AK Party Congress on March 24.
Meetings were suspended late last year due to the pandemic, but resumed last month.
Although VIPs are seated in a socially distant area on the conference floor, which is usually held in large sports halls or arenas, the side terrace seats are usually filled with thousands of supporters, many of whom are from the neighboring provinces.
Monday’s AK Party congress in the Aegean port of Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, drew fierce criticism when images of crowds crowded through turnstiles were shared on social media.
The next day, a former AK party official who was in attendance announced on Twitter that he had tested positive for COVID-19. He then deleted the tweet.
The scenes led opposition MPs to demand quarantine of participants. Opposition iyi Party MP Lutfu Turkkan criticized mass political rallies at a time when restaurants, cafes and other public spaces remain closed.
“You can’t go to a concert, to a play or to the movies,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “The only social activity you can go to is the corona congresses of the [AK Party]. “
Others say the Black Sea cases are due to factors such as townspeople spending weekends locked out with relatives in villages or large numbers attending funerals despite the rules limiting participation to 30 mourners.
“Even before the weekend lockdown begins, people are heading to their villages,” said Ilker Guney, 53, from Giresun. “In villages in particular, the rules are ignored.”
Faruk Aydin, head of microbiology at the Black Sea Technical University, called for special measures in the five provinces, such as travel restrictions and tighter lockdowns.
“There is an equal amount of positivity in almost every village, town and town,” he said.
“There is no distinction between villages or towns. All positive [results] are also distributed everywhere.
“We find that they live together, that travel between village and town can be done easily and, in this regard, restrictions are not an obstacle.”
Across the country, Turkey has recorded the highest number of daily tariffs since mid-January – 9,572 on Thursday – as it prepares to allow many businesses to reopen next month.
The country has reported nearly 2.7 million cases since March last year and more than 28,350 deaths.
Meanwhile, opposition parties, especially the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), have faced restrictions and fines for their political events.
Another event that drew criticism was the crowded funeral of a prominent Muslim scholar in Istanbul on Sunday. Erdogan and Health Minister Fahrettin Koca were among dozens of people mourning.
The minister, who is leading the government’s call for people to observe pandemic measures, has come under special censorship and has subsequently apologized.
“As [a population of] 83 million, everyone should contribute to the fight during the pandemic by making equal sacrifices, ”he said.
At a press conference on Thursday, Koca ruled out a full stop in the Black Sea provinces.
Commenting on AK party congresses, he added, “Transmission increases with close contact. We have told our citizens to stay away from closed areas. It would be too much for me to say anything [more] about that.”