Istanbul businesses empty as coronavirus strikes

The spread of the coronavirus pandemic to Istanbul has paralysed daily life for many in Turkey’s biggest city, after the Interior Ministry announced the mandatory closure of shops and businesses ranging from restaurants and cafes to sport centres and health clubs.

The closures have turned parts of Istanbul into a ghost town, but business owners like Mehmet, who runs a coffee house in Sirinevler, said the virus itself might be fatal, but its consequences for workers and business owners around Turkey were even worse.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a $15 billion package of economic measures last week that aimed to soften the economic impact of the coronavirus, but small business owners like Mehmet were left disappointed by the lack of concrete financial support in the package.

The number of customers at Mehmet’s coffee house quickly dwindled as fear of the coronavirus grew, but he defied the Interior Ministry’s circular and stayed open until the ministry forced him to close down. Now he fears that, if the closures last for only two months, his debts will balloon.

“We were barely able to make ends meet before this pandemic. We are not working now. The children are not going to school. I’ve got to pay electricity, water, natural gas bills, home rent, rent for the coffee house,” he said.

“All I make in a month is 2,700 liras. How will I make ends meet? The state is taking measures to save our lives. That's nice, but these measures will kill us financially,” he said.

Mesut Temirci, who works at a bakery in Sefaköy, said his workplace was likewise feeling the strain, with sales down by around 60 percent after managers closed the seating area and began selling their products only over the counter.

The bakery has taken its own precautionary measures, with staff donning masks and gloves to work and sprinkling lemon cologne on each customer’s hands.

Temirci said he had listened to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speech in which he explained the measures taken by the government against the coronavirus.

But Temirci said he did not think the government’s response to the crisis had gone far enough, either in an economic sense or in communicating what people should do.

“To be honest, there are not enough measures in the package,” said Temirci. “For example, where should people go if they want to be tested? If I get sick, should I stay at home or in hospital? Will it be with or without cost if I stay in the hospital? What happens if I stay in my house and infect my family?”

As for the economy, Temirci said, it “would be nice if the government helped those who cannot go to work and have to stay at home, because we will spend money even while we are home, but we will not have a source of income.”

But not everybody agrees. A woman nearby said the measures announced were enough and said Turkey was doing well compared to other countries.

“Iran, Italy and China haven’t managed as well as us. The state is doing its best,” she said. “We would be like Iran if these measures hadn’t been taken.”

The latest figures that Turkey’s Health Ministry place the number of known COVID-19 cases in Turkey at 1,236, with 30 deaths. Iran, whose government faced criticism for playing down the threat of the virus as it spread prior to elections, has recorded more than 23,000 cases and 1,812 deaths.

The situation in Istanbul is yet to reach those drastic levels, and residents, particularly those whose businesses have come to a standstill, appear to be overcome with concerns over how they will be able to make ends meet, rather than panic at the global pandemic.

Faruk Demirci, who runs a restaurant in the Güngören district of the city, believes the virus’s greatest impact would be on Turkey’s economy rather than the health of its people, with local tradesmen hit particularly hard.

“First we will be happy that only very few people died. I wish there could be no deaths, but we, the tradesmen, will die due to an economic blow that could be coming,” said Demirci. “People’s safety is important, but the future is also important. Look, no one’s touched the kebab we made this morning. There are no customers. We offer food delivery service to homes, but the phone is almost completely dead.”

Restaurants and fast food outlets in Istanbul have taken an especially strong blow with the departure of thousands of university students who have headed to their homes around Turkey since the government announced it was closing schools and universities, Demirci said.

Taxis have likewise taken a hit, said taxi driver Ahmet Doğan, though he stressed that people in his line of work faced extra concerns for their health as they continued to work through the pandemic.

“A passenger who got in my taxi recently was coughing,” Doğan said. “He said he needed to go to hospital. Believe me I was terrified throughout the entire trip.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.