The Covid Chronicles
The Covid Chronicles is a limited series on Insights following the postnormal dimension of the Covid-19 pandemic. This week Linda Hyökki takes us to an Istanbul in lockdown.
From Istanbul, Turkey
“Oh Lord! We are going through hard times. Oh God, maintain our unity and our brotherhood”
Today again, like yesterday and many days before, sounds of a complimentary prayer echo from the loudspeakers of the dozen mosques in my Istanbul neighborhood. The prayer – which is these days purposefully broadcasted to ask for protection and guidance from God during the tribulations that Turkey and the world at large are going through due to the Coronavirus pandemic – serves as a reminder to the people that despite the mosques being closed for congregational prayers, believers could find unity and brotherhood in isolation. However, as I have been observing my fellow Istanbulli citizens adjust their lives to these postnormal circumstances – marked by levels of uncertainty and ignorance like I have never experienced before – and simultaneously keep up with developments elsewhere in Europe, I have come to question whether the impact of any call to brotherhood and unity is in fact flatter than the curve that numerous governments through a variety of measures have attempted to control.
It has been a bit more than a month since the first COVID-19 infection was registered in Turkey. In four weeks, the official numbers of infected cases have climbed to reach 57,000. Still in the first week of March, “Corona Maps” showed Turkey as an isolated, apparently protected island, while the virus was already infecting its victims in neighboring countries such as Iran. I was planning a visit at the end of the month to the Balkans, a “well deserved” break from my busy student life in Istanbul. Now in retrospect, imaging a scene in which I travel back in time “to do things differently”, I would most probably get a slap in the face from myself – what a poor anticipation of futures! Right in front of my eyes, the virus was transforming from a black swan to a black jellyfish and finally ending up as a black elephant. A 3-in-1 postnormal times phenomenon that would demonstrate to us the fragility of our life as we knew it. Then again, in postnormal times, things tend to occur simultaneously!
While other European countries such as Spain and Italy were already battling Corona with its numerous casualties and all news indicated that it was spreading like a cancer across borders, it was clearly only a matter of time until the virus would reach Turkey and Istanbul. Especially in a metropole with 15 million inhabitants, masses on the streets, densely populated areas with families living in same households with many generations, it would surely not be stopped. Fundamental changes to our everyday lifestyle were looming in the air. My university had already started preparing in February. They began by introducing the idea of online teaching. So, when the Ministry of Education announced the closing of campuses on March 12, some universities struggled with adjusting the semester plans, yet we were ready. Nevertheless, on our campus as well, there were tribulations none of the senior teachers had thought about: how to support students’ mental health while they had to undergo rapid changes of residency as dorms were closing without warning, balance between worry for their families and friends and school obligations, or even to just adjust to a life in closed campuses as was the case mostly for international students who did not make it back to their countries in time – or could not afford it – with repatriation flights which were then very soon suspended.
In my thirty-five years of life, I do not remember witnessing any other event like COVID-19 that would have had such a far-reaching impact globally. It is a crisis that would come knocking on the front door for us all. How safe had myself and most of those around me been, living in our ivory towers? We had not experienced war or extraordinary circumstances. While the numbers in Istanbul started growing faster and faster, I began to see the jellyfish crawl out of the elephant. The crisis was not only going to affect all population strata but also all aspects of our collective and individual lives. The rich, the poor, the royal, the rulers, the working class, women, men, children, elderly, young. No one was, or remains, safe from the virus. However, even if the direct threat to our health was the same for everyone, the impact of the consequences of the chaos on economic, political, and social levels, is not the same. I thought about the most prominent measure that many states introduced in the beginning of the crisis – social distancing. Even though I personally recognized the value of it, for me as a privileged single person being able to work and study from the comfort of my home and not to worry about my daily income, it was a good way of detaching myself from the distractions of the urban city life. Coffee shops, hanging out with friends, gym; mostly connected to my nafs (ego, self) and its desires. Yet while I have been detaching myself from the nice-to-haves of my life and practicing self-discipline, there are countless population groups for whom social distancing has been if not impossible, then at least challenging to manage. For our societies to function and keep the infrastructure ongoing, essential workers still had to leave for their jobs daily. Bus drivers, street cleaners, health care professionals, etc. They were forced to risk their lives and those of their families, as the concept of “home-office” was out of the question for them. As has been reported globally, many got infected with the virus during this time and have even passed away.
Living next to a block populated by Roma, I also thought about them and other marginalized populations such as illegal immigrants, and refugees who would not be able to contribute to the collective “responsibility” of social distancing as has been discursively framed by politicians. Not only does their daily income depend on hustling random jobs outside such as collecting recyclable trash, selling flowers and other items on the streets, but due to their precarious lives, they accommodate tight living spaces with several members of the family or just friends under the same roof. I remember a picture series circulating on Facebook to raise awareness of the living conditions of immigrant workers in Asian and Middle-Eastern countries; staying under indoors for the sake of “social distancing” for an indefinite duration of time in cleaning closets turned into some perverted version of a studio would, without a doubt, have detrimental consequences on mental health. Hence, I wonder, what additional stress do these population groups have to endure regarding the social pressure to “distance”? How forgiving can we be of those who move outside without a mask because they might not be able to afford to buy them, or could we put ourselves into their shoes who – in worst case scenario – have to worry about quarantining an infected member of a family of ten living in a two-room apartment?
The lockdowns of institutions and services, international travel restrictions, collapse of health-care systems, inflation, for God’s sake, articles were even written about the anticipated increase in divorce rates. Alas! If the borders would have stayed open, we would have witnessed a refugee crisis of a new kind, as people would try to move from the more infected spaces into safer ones. Partly, this took place within national borders. In Finland my friends’ parents decided to escape into the wilderness of Lapland to their cottage residence. Finally, they found themselves stuck a thousand kilometers from their family unable to return home since their county was the only one with closed borders. Similarly, Turkey introduced a lockdown of larger cities and municipalities restricting domestic travel to stop the spread of the virus. News reported that Finnish tourists found themselves stuck on their island resorts due to poor management of return flights. While I reflected upon the sudden change in freedom of mobility, to which I myself was also used to, I hoped that one of the long-term positive changes resulting from the corona-days would be in the perception of the privileged, especially of those with “powerful passports” and push them to understand the struggles of the oppressed, for whom there is no such thing as effortless international travel, and to critically think about the many layers of hierarchies in which our social life is embedded.
The four weeks of corona times in Turkey were introduced step by step, more and more rules and restrictions, and by now, walks by the seaside, in parks and forests have been forbidden in Istanbul. Turkey is, however, no exception. Other countries have also introduced similar measures, along with police hours and curfews. Yet, with the latter, Turkey’s approach has been questionable; implementing on-going curfews to only certain age groups, the over sixty-year-olds and those under twenty years. Restricting one group’s freedom of mobility in such a drastic manner begs the question of equality. Could there not have been another way, such as has been done in Germany where depending on the individual federal state laws, citizens are variably permitted to go outside of their residence with at most two other persons of their own household. In Finland, curfews have been used only as the last recourse and the government has put its trust in people respecting its recommendations about restricting outdoor activities. By now, numerous statistics have emerged looking into the different measures globally in attempts to draw conclusions about which countries have been most successful with “the least restrictions” in terms of slowing down the virus. However, such statistics do not take into consideration the socio-cultural aspect of population behavior.
In Finland, consequences of curfews can immensely worsen the mental health of the already lonely elderly. Some flexibility such as the freedom to go for daily walks or grocery shopping tours, which often are an integral part of people’s daily routines, is extremely important. In Turkey, the method of passing time for the elderly (men) is to socialize for hours in tea houses and parks. Hence why in our area the benches were removed even before the curfew was introduced as the officials noticed that social distancing was not being adhered to. I do remember the grandpas’ baffled and frustrated faces as they suddenly did not have any seats in the central marketplace. However, for the elderly here, many are also still living with their children and grandchildren in the same household which again might help as they do not need to spend their time alone. Yet, the curfews are also problematic for the younger population group. I think about how children and teenagers, who are living in problematic homes where they are victimized by alcohol or drug induced violence, are being impacted by these restrictions to leave their houses. For many, hours spent in school and outside are the only escape from cruelty. This is also true for adult victims of domestic abuse. While the restrictions are supposed to “save lives” how many are nevertheless at stake while being stuck inside four walls? I kept asking myself these questions.
But let’s go back to the very beginning of my reflections, and to the question of unity in times of crises. A Prophetic saying from the Islamic tradition states: “Love for thy brother as you love yourself”. But love evaporated rapidly as soon as the restrictions were introduced. A quite macabre phenomenon manifested itself on a global scale with what the pandemic suddenly made out of the most basic objects, that is the common toilet paper, the embodiment of humans’ desires to literally save – excuse my French – their own asses before anyone else’s. While I have not observed any shortage of this sanitary item in my neighborhood shops, I couldn’t confidently say that the daily prayer broadcasted from the mosques would have played its magic in any significant way, as Istanbul too experienced zombie-apocalypse alike scenes on Friday 10 April, after the government announced a total curfew for the weekend with only a two-hour warning. Soon, photos circulated on social media of mass hysteria in the streets as people were shopping for whatever they thought they could not do without for two days. I saw a video showing a group of young men engaged in something that could have been a gang fight in front of a bakery - was it for the last pieces of baklava?
However, one photo which finally ended up going viral that night encouraged me to comfort myself to think, that despite all the chaos outside, for many of us, sticking to moments of normalcy and familiarity even with necessary modifications while we find ourselves in the postnormal “in-between” times, is the only way to move on. The photo showed a queue in one of Istanbul’s typical corner shops with people lined up to buy water, cigarettes, and bread, which ironically, would get hard by the next morning anyway. At the back of the line, stood an older man with only one item in his hand – a pack of chocolate coated mini cakes. My imagination inspired the thought of him serving them the next day with some Turkish tea and a “Happy Birthday” sung to someone he loves, while other family members would join the joyful moment on Zoom.