Closed until further notice

  Jul 7, 2020 3:18 pm İpek Özerim 1709
The scenes this week of a neurotic public responding badly to the news of three new coronavirus cases in North Cyprus, all imported, and a panicked government firefighting its way through the crisis came as no great surprise.

Closed until further notice

The first case was from a new arrival on a boat from Turkey. The other two, one a Turkish national, the other a Kazakh national, arrived on the plane from Istanbul on 1 July. According to the rules, all three should have showed negative PCR tests before boarding, yet questions marks arose after Barbaros Şansal’s startling revelations.

The controversial fashion designer was first off the plane on Wednesday morning, and promptly informed the new tourism minister, Kutlu Evren and the wider world via Twitter, that no one had checked his certificate at Istanbul. The news spread like wildfire, as did a video of a person fresh off the boat heading to a barber shop in Dereboyu, Lefkoşa, with his suitcase,instead of self-isolating until his second PCR test results were known.

The public screamed for action, and by that evening they had it, as health minister Dr Ali Pilli announced that all new arrivals would now be subject to a PCR test and would be quarantined until their results were issued. The people applauded, but tensions rose again after the minister confirmed Covid-19 infections had risen from 1 to 3 in 24 hours, prompting calls for compulsory 14-day quarantine.

The government is in a no-win position entirely of its own making. The health ministry in particular, has heightened fears about the virus to such an extent that trying to find a sensible path of living with the virus post-lockdown and also open the country to outsiders remains a tall order. 

As I wrote on 23 May, “The TRNC’s public education campaign has been mixed: at times instead of arming the public with vital facts about the risks of coronavirus, we prefer to feed their fear and paranoia, or to lull them into a false sense of security.”

With life in North Cyprus pretty much back to normal, many Turkish Cypriots would prefer to keep the world away until corona virus disappears or there’s a vaccine. Sadly, short of bankruptcy, that’s not an option the country can afford to take. We are highly dependent on tourism and higher education, and both require foreigners to survive. 

While I understand the public’s call for mandatory quarantine, the TRNC needs to be listening to those who’ve been through this process already:quarantine should not be a two-week prison sentence, especially as foreigners have to pay for it!

The view on the outside is:  “You can keep your quarantine, we’re skipping the Not Cyprus this year,” and after the shameful treatment meted out on British residents who returned to North Cyprus on 23 June, who can blame them?

They arrived at Ercan Airport and were kept waiting on the tarmac for hours, without a care for the elderly or less abled. Sixty-four faced the threat of deportation, despite having their permits approved by the interior ministry ahead of travelling and the foreign ministry sharing the passenger list with all relevant ministries 24 hours before the flight. The Prime Minister has apologised to some of the passengers and promised an inquiry. It needs to happen!

Tour operator Cyprus Paradise, responsible for all London-Ercan repatriation flights, tried to cut through the bureaucracy by offering a single point of booking and payment. They liaised with government officials and informed passengers, the vast majority paying their flight plus 4400 TL (about £510) to cover their quarantine costs, that they would be staying at the 4-star Riverside Garden Hotel.

The plans unravelled in Girne. Brits at the back of the plane and those held waiting while officials checked their documentation found themselves on the last coach. On the day of travel, unknown to even the tour operator, the health ministry decided Riverside would no longer be used as a quarantine centre. There’s been no public statement why, but it’s thought that a serious breach of hotel security, allowing a local to see their sister in quarantine, incurred the wrath of Dr Pilli.   

Many on the plane, including dozens of TRNC citizens who were not paying for their quarantine, found themselves upgraded to the 5-star Malpas Hotel. Over sixty others were taken to Olivia Palm, a 3-star hotel with no lift, meaning the elderly had to bring their luggage up several flights of stairs. The hotel was not expecting them, so more delays at the reception. There was no food that night, and no kettle in the room.

The next day, details of the experience, along with pictures of the poor food being served in polystyrene boxes at the Olivia Palm emerged. It’s scandalous. You can’t leave your room and you have to pay more for extras. The hotel is trying is best that’s for sure, but their facilities are a reflection of their mid-range status and the government-imposed quarantine restrictions.

The health minister has not responded to Cyprus Paradise and others’ enquiries on why there are huge discrepancies in the quality of quarantine accommodation for those paying. Their indifference speaks volumes.

The same problems reoccurred this week too, as another foreign resident informed me. Irina has waitedfor nearly four months for the rules to allow her husband, a British national working in Kazakhstan, to return to their home in North Cyprus. They were shocked to discover that the Central Asian country had been moved from Category A in mid-June, to Category C high risk at the end of June. Instant quarantine. 

When her husband tried to show Ercan officials the 14 June Official Gazette of Kazakhstan’sstatus, he was rudely told to “put the document away. If you don’t like it we can send you back to Kazakhstan!” He and ten others were made to wait for ages then taken to a three-star hotel, the Güneş Rezidans, in the capital, for which he will also have to pay for. Again on arrival, the hotel is not expecting them, so after a long day, some travelling for up to 24 hours, they waited for their rooms to be prepared. 

If the government cannot get a grip on such matters, if it cannot cope with a few hundred new arrivals each day, and if treats foreigners with the sheer contempt we are now regularly witnessing, it should be more honest and just say, “Closed to the outside world until further notice.”