image Photo: Reuters

Turkey sends medical aid to Balkans to fight coronavirus, as China assists Turkey to acquire supplies

Turkey has confirmed a total of 649 coronavirus-related fatalities, while the tally of confirmed infections in the country is 30,217 so far.

The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has implemented a series of strong measures aimed at stemming the COVID-19 outbreak. A 15-day order was been in effect since 4 April, banning the entrance or exit of vehicles from 31 cities and provinces, including Istanbul – home to nearly one-fifth of Turkey’s population – as well as the urban centers of the capital Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, and Adana. Exceptions are made for the delivery of essential supplies such as food, medical and hygienic products.

Checkpoints have been set up at entrances of marketplaces to distribute face masks, which is compulsory for all shoppers. It is also mandated for any passengers on public transportation, where they are also receiving hand sanitizer before boarding. The distribution of medical masks to people between the ages of 20 and 65 is free-of-charge, as sale of masks is prohibited in Turkey.

All international flights have been halted and domestic travel has been limited. Schools, bars and cafes have been closed and mass prayers have been suspended, although people are still allowed to go to work as Erdogan seeks to sustain economic production and exports.

A partial curfew for citizens under the age of 20 went into effect on 3 April 3. Elderly citizens over the age of 65 and those with chronic diseases have been ordered to remain at home since late March.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Defense Ministry said on Twitter that the country delivered medical supplies to five Balkan countries to help fight the novel coronavirus outbreak. According to the statement, the items taken to Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo included “masks, overalls, and test kits prepared by Turkey’s Health Ministry” by military aircraft.

The first stop was in Serbia, where the cargo plane was welcomed by Serbian Defense Minister Aleksander Vulin and Turkish Ambassador to Belgrade Tanju Bilgic after landing yesterday afternoon at the Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport. Serbia has had 58 coronavirus-related deaths and 2,200 confirmed infections.

Bosnia and Herzegovina were the second locale to receive supplies. Bosnian Defense Minister Fahrudin Radoncic greeted the airlift upon arrival at the International Sarajevo Airport. Turkey’s Ambassador to Sarajevo Hadun Koc was also present, telling reporters, “In these difficult days, we delivered these medical supplies to the government of Bosnia Herzegovina to show our solidarity with our friendly brother country.” Bosnia and Herzegovina has recorded 30 deaths and 716 cases of the disease.

A tally of the COVID-19 outbreak of the other recipients of Turkey’s medical assistance shows 2 deaths and 239 cases in Montenegro, 23 deaths and 570 cases in North Macedonia, and 6 deaths and 224 cases in Kosovo.

Turkey previously sent medical aid to Italy and Spain, the countries in Europe worst hit by the virus.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Wednesday in a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Beijing will continue to support Ankara’s fight against the COVID-19 epidemic in line with its needs while facilitating its purchase of medical supplies from his nation.

After noting that China is now emerging from the epidemic and resuming normal production and daily life, Xi said that joint efforts can the international community prevail over the disease. He added that China has already provided Turkey with anti-epidemic supplies and arranged exchanges between medical and health experts of both countries through video-link to share their experience in COVID-19 fight.

For his part, Erdogan expressed gratitude for China’s support of Turkey against the disease, which he said sets an example for the world in “a common battle facing the whole of mankind.” He added that Turkey expects to enhance practical cooperation with China in various fields such as trade, finance and aviation, and wished China prosperity and happiness after the epidemic.

Following a virtual cabinet meeting on Monday, Erdogan announced plans to build two more hospitals with a capacity of 1,000 beds each in Istanbul, on either side of the province divided by the Bosphorus Strait with one side in Europe and the other in Asia.

“We do not have any problems regarding the diagnosis and treatment processes at our hospitals” nor “any trouble in the provision of health services, food and cleaning supplies, as well as public order,” said Erdogan. He said establishment of one hospital “in the area of Yesilkoy Ataturk Airport” and another at Sancaktepe will hopefully be completed in around 45 days to “serve our people.” He added that the Turkish health care system surpassed the “important threshold” of 20,000 daily coronavirus tests.

Erdogan also said that ₺1.5 billion liras (equivalent to €203,293,165 or just over  $221 million) have been raised by Turkish citizens and companies after the launch of a National Solidarity Campaign last week, and that preparations are underway “to deliver aid to 2.3 million households.”

Turning to northwest Syria, where the ceasefire Turkey brokered with Russia last month appears to be holding.

The cessation of hostilities has reportedly permitted tens of thousands of civilians to return to their homes in the Idlib Province. Warfare between rebels and Syrian government troops had forced nearly one million people into flight over just the past three months alone.

According to Syria’s Response Coordination Group, which gathers data on migration in the region, an estimated 73,000 displaced people have returned to the last opposition-bastion. The organization reported that residents of territory controlled by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have opted to remain in areas near the Turkish border.

On 5 March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed in Moscow to a new ceasefire in Idlib that went into effect the following day.

One returning migrant identified as Ali Abdullah told Reuters that he came to rebuild his home in the town of al-Atarib that had been damaged by regime attacks. “We lost our home. We endured the attacks. We migrated. Now we have returned. We will continue our lives on or under the wreck,” Abdullah said, noting that his family had fled Idlib because the Assad regime and Iran-backed groups were advancing to 46th Brigade with intense attacks. He also reported there was still no running water or electricity in al-Atarib.

Turkey launched Operation Spring Shield on 1 March after at least 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in a Syrian government offensive with Russian air support on Idlib in late February. Under a 2018 deal with Russia, Turkish troops were stationed in Idlib to protect civilians from attacks by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.

In Syria’s northwest, some 3 million people are trapped in the shrinking opposition bastion battered by months of bombardment, particularly in Idlib.