Facts not fiction will keep Covid-19 at bay
My dad was looking forward to Wednesday. He could get his hair cut for the first time in weeks, after the government eased the lockdown restrictions on barbershops. In his haste, he left without his face mask. He came home a few minutes later, fearful of a possible fine if he was out in public without one.
When he returned from his smart snip in Güzelyurt a few hours later, he told me he didn’t know why he had bothered with the face mask. Virtually everyone he saw wasn’t wearing one and the police didn’t seem much bothered. Social distancing wasn’t being adhered to either, dad said.
The picture was pretty much the same across the rest of the country, as people returned to some form of normality in their lives after the strict safeguarding measures of the past two months that has seen most of us cooped up at home. People have been visiting family and friends, or heading to the beach duringthe heatwave. Many work places have reopened after the government set out safe ways for them to operate. Life feels good again.
It’s no surprise. The government has been proudly telling us and the rest of the world about the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus’ (TRNC) triumphi n containing coronavirus: just four deaths and 108 cases of infections, a superhuman feat considering the limited resources the authorities have at their disposal here, and the many unknowns they faced when this pandemic first hit us in March.
The last patient was discharged from hospital on 11 May, and with no new reported cases for over a month, the TRNC becomes the first country in the world to eliminate all cases of Covid-19. Sadly, being politically unrecognised means the World Health Organisation and international media are not registering this important feat.
Yet, as TRNC Health Minister Ali Pilli warned on Thursday, the battle is far from done: “Until Covid-19 ends around the world, then it’s not over for us either”, he told the Turkish News Agency (TAK).
The Health Minister said he was “fearful” and having “sleepless nights” over the fact most people had abandoned the safety principles that had led to the TRNC’s initial success. He fears that a second wave could be “far worse” if people ignore the risks.
Dr Pilli is right. The TRNC cannot afford to become complacent. The issue will come to ahead next month when the country starts opening itself up to outsiders, whether that’s people living over the border in South Cyprus, or those coming from Turkey, Britain and elsewhere.
Given everywhere other than North Cyprus is still battling against the pandemic, visitors from abroad pose a risk to Turkish Cypriots. But the country can’t afford to stay closed off for too much longer – the economy can’t bear it. What a dilemma.
Whatever measures the authorities put in place, it’s inevitable that the virus will find a way back into the TRNC. It’s a question of when, not if.
Yes the country is better equipped to deal with the pandemic than at the beginning of the outbreak: more ventilators, more testing capacity, and more know-how to draw on from around the world.
The biggest weapon in limiting the dangers from this killer disease is the behaviour of the people. 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. The media is as much to blame as the politicians.
Neither approach is helping us, and is potentially hampering the next phase of us learning to live with this deadly virus.
Our Health Minister – the man hailed a hero for keeping Covid-19 at bay – has also been among one of the worst fearmongers. The issue has been most obvious in his nonsensical resistance to allowing Turkish Cypriots who died abroad from being buried here in the TRNC.
A few weeks ago, multiple newspapers wrote, “despite the Health Minister’s warnings, Covid-19 infected bodies were set to be repatriated.” The non-Covid deceased were also smeared, as the headlines whipped up a public frenzy of opposition. Furious bereaved families turned to the responsible journalists for their side of the story. A series of damning articles appeared in daily nationals here and in Turkey, forcing the government to agree to the repatriation of non-Covid-19 bodies.
But ‘why not the Covid-19 ones?’, asked the families of seven coronavirus victims, among them the relatives of care workers Sonya Kaygan and Hakan Seyyar, and brothers Erdal and Erbay Yılmaz. It’s a valid question and one I would expect Dr Pilli and his Health Ministry team to deal with on a factual basis. So far, silence.
Multiple authorities, from the WHO to the European Commission, the UK and Turkey, have all published detailed guidelines on handling Covid-19 infected bodies safely. They all state that there is very little risk from the dead when precautions are taken, and this drops to zero after the first seven days when the virus dies.
Dr Pilli could also ask the TRNC Science Committee for its opinion. This group of 20 medical practitioners includes specialists in infectious and respiratory diseases, yet to date they have not been consulted. Nor has anyone from the Health Ministry contacted the UK Turkish Islamic Funeral Service, which is responsible for repatriating deceased Turkish Cypriots. They have carried out the funerals of over 70 Turkish Cypriot coronavirus victims in Britain, and its significant expertise is regularly utilised by London’s Death Management Committees, but not good enough for the TRNC it seems.
The media should be calling this out, but Dr Pilli is seemingly untouchable and so the difficult questions are not asked.
No doubt, there are other areas of virus risk management that the TRNC currently lacks direct experience of. The trade-off between public health and the economy is hard, and at all times we must be led by the scientific facts.Where there is uncertainty, we need to know that too. What we can’t have are decisions made by a few politicians who fail to consult the experts: that is a recipe for disaster.