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Turkey’s Coronavirus Crisis Grows as Infections Exceed China’s

Turkey has now recorded the highest number of cases outside of the United States and Europe. Can it juggle the crisis and a crumbling economy?

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
A stray cat on an empty Istiklal Caddesi, the main shopping center of Istanbul, on April 19, as the Turkish government announced a two-day curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A stray cat on an empty Istiklal Caddesi, the main shopping center of Istanbul, on April 19, as the Turkish government announced a two-day curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Ozan KOSE / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Turkey has surpassed China as the country with the most coronavirus cases outside the United States and Europe, Italy renews call for eurozone bonds, and China and the United States trade barbs over Hong Kong arrests.

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Turkey has surpassed China as the country with the most coronavirus cases outside the United States and Europe, Italy renews call for eurozone bonds, and China and the United States trade barbs over Hong Kong arrests.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Turkey Now Among World’s Worst-Hit Countries

Turkey has overtaken China as the country with the most coronavirus infections outside of the United States and Europe. Turkey has now recorded 86,306 cases, with 2,017 deaths.

As the number of coronavirus cases has increased, Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has sought to allay fears of an overwhelmed health system. Speaking on Friday, Koca said that unlike Western nations, Turkey’s hospitals still hold excess capacity and that intensive care units were not exceeding 60 percent occupancy. A licensed physician, Koca’s daily briefings have made him a star on social media over the course of the pandemic; he has gained over 4 million followers on Twitter since the beginning of the year.

Turkey’s problems with containing the virus came into focus on April 10, when a late announcement of a weekend curfew led to panic buying across the country. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu offered his resignation for the botched curfew that weekend, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to accept it. Although schools and bars have closed, Turkey has so far avoided implementing a full-scale lockdown, preferring weekend curfews instead.

During a call between the two leaders on Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump and Erdogan agreed to continue their “close cooperation” during the pandemic.

How has politics played into Turkey’s response? Erdogan has been in a battle for power over coronavirus relief efforts with municipal governments since the epidemic began. Two of Turkey’s major cities, Ankara and Istanbul, are run by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and both found themselves blindsided by April 10’s hasty lockdown announcement.

Writing in FP from Istanbul, Tessa Fox reports on the political decisions guiding Turkey’s response and how the rivalry between Erdogan and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu is shaping the government’s behavior. “Erdogan sees Imamoglu, who defeated the AKP twice in Istanbul’s March 2019 mayoral election and a repeat race last June, as a major electoral threat…Anyone who runs Istanbul well can gain a foothold in national politics,” just as Erdogan—a former Istanbul mayor—once did, she writes.

Can Turkey’s economy handle another shock like this? Turkey’s economy was in bad shape before the pandemic hit, and finds itself in an even tougher spot now. On April 10 Reuters reported that Turkish officials had held talks with the U.S. Federal Reserve on securing a swap line from the bank. The Turkish currency recently plummeted to a near-historic low of 6.95 lira to the U.S. dollar and is currently trading at 6.88 to the dollar.

Writing in FP on April 9, Aykan Erdemir  and John A. Lechner warned that Erdogan and his son-in-law, who is the finance minister, will need to adopt a new approach for Turkey’s economy to survive, “During an unparalleled crisis that calls for solidarity and trust within and among nations, unless the Turkish president stops doubling down on past mistakes, calamitous financial and public health crises await Turkey—and each of them will be contagious for the country’s trading partners near and far,” they argued.

What We’re Following Today

Italy’s Conte calls for Eurobonds. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has renewed a call for the European Union to issue eurozone-wide bonds as a way for the bloc to show solidarity with member nations. The comments were printed today in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Germany and the Netherlands have pushed back against any EU-wide bond, preferring to use the European Stability Mechanism, the EU’s bailout fund, instead.

Writing in FP last week, Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute argued that the European Union needs a modern-day Alexander Hamilton. The new Eurobonds could not only act as a salve for Italy and Spain and send a signal of political solidarity, writes Rohac, but are “first and foremost a matter of economic and financial self-preservation in a crisis that has no precedent in peacetime living memory.”

U.S.-China war of words after Hong Kong arrests. Fifteen pro-democracy protesters were arrested in Hong Kong over the weekend for their alleged roles in organizing demonstrations against a proposed extradition law in August and October of last year. The United States and other Western governments condemned the move. U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr, in an effort to tie it to the current feud over the coronavirus, said the actions “demonstrate once again that the Chinese Communist Party cannot be trusted.” The Commissioner’s Office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong accused the United States and others of “condoning evil acts and making a travesty of the rule of law by ignoring facts.”

Gunmen kill 47 in Nigeria. Dozens of people have been killed in northwestern Nigeria after gunmen opened fire on three villages Danmusa, Dutsenma, and Safana in Katsina state. Local police blamed the attacks on “armed bandits” operating in the area. Criminal gangs have killed hundreds of people in the region over the past year. 

Keep an Eye On

North Korea confirms coronavirus cases internally. North Korean authorities have told their citizens that cases of coronavirus have been recorded in the country, going against the country’s claim to be free of the virus. Radio Free Asia reported that in lectures to neighborhood watch groups and other organizations the authorities mentioned cases in Pyongyang and two other parts of the country, without giving specific figures. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un was absent from official coverage of a national holiday last Wednesday, prompting speculation over his health.

Coronavirus strikes Afghan presidential palace. Afghanistan’s presidential palace is suffering a coronavirus outbreak, with up to 40 cases reported. There is no indication that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is infected. Afghanistan is particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus after the toll decades of war has taken on its health system. In March, over 150,000 Afghans returned to the country from Iran, one of the first countries to record major coronavirus outbreaks.

Spain deaths slowing. The number of coronavirus deaths in Spain rose by its lowest amount in four weeks on Sunday, suggesting the outbreak may have reached its peak in the world’s third-worst hit country. The number of increased by 410, the smallest daily increase since March 22. “This is the first time we got below 500 since cases started to spike—this number gives us hope,” Fernando Simon, a Spanish government adviser, said on Sunday.

The World This Week

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus today. According to Iran’s foreign ministry, the meeting will focus on “bilateral relations, regional developments, and the latest political and on-the-ground developments of the Arab country’s fight against terrorism.”

In its role as rotating head of the G-20 nations, Saudi Arabia will convene two ministerial meetings this week. On Tuesday April 21, it will host a virtual meeting with agriculture ministers and on Thursday April 23 it will host a meeting of employment ministers.

The latest round of videoconference Brexit negotiations between representatives of the European Union and United Kingdom begins today and will continue through the week. The two sides are due to meet monthly until June.

Odds and Ends

Afghanistan’s all-women robotics team made headlines in 2017 when they were finally granted visas on their third attempt to attend an international robotics competition in the United States; now they are back again to help with their country’s coronavirus epidemic. The team is hard at work developing a prototype ventilator, with the help of some spare car parts. Afghanistan is reported to have only 400 ventilators in a population of over 36 million. Somaya Farooqi, one of the team’s members is adamant about her contribution, “Afghans should be helping Afghanistan in this pandemic,” she said. “We should not wait for others.”

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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