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COVID-19: Turkey on the Hunt for Jabs as it Fights Skepticism

While they may represent the minority, people opting to abstain from being vaccinated against COVID-19 have prompted the Health Ministry to launch efforts to change their minds as the country seeks further shipments of jabs from abroad to step up its fight against the pandemic

Vaccine skepticism, which had its proponents before the coronavirus pandemic, was aggravated with the onset of the outbreak last year in Turkey, long before the country began its mass inoculation campaign. Today, it remains a challenge for authorities as the country races to curb the pandemic amid a drastic rise in daily cases.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said Thursday that they hope to have vaccinated everyone aged 40 and above by the end of June. The vaccinations are being supported by a string of restrictions, the only viable option to rein in the pandemic, according to experts.

The country implemented new, harsher measures, including an extended curfew, to control the pandemic ahead of the tourism season when mobility increases as the country seeks to boost tourism revenues. But without vaccinations, measures will only provide temporary protection, according to experts. So far Turkey has administered over 19.5 million doses of various vaccines. Last week, Turkey was ranked sixth in the world in terms of vaccination speed. It relies on CoronaVac, developed by China’s Sinovac, and recently received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination. “We hastened our vaccine diplomacy with Sinovac and BioNTech (for more deliveries),” Koca said, noting that negotiations were ongoing with Russia for their Sputnik V vaccine. The country is also waiting for trials of locally developed vaccines to be completed. “With measures (and vaccination), we expect a significant drop in the number of cases and fatalities in June,” Koca was quoted as saying.

The minister highlighted that 14% of health care workers, who were prioritized in the vaccination campaign, have not applied for vaccination yet, as well as a further 23.6% of people aged 65 and above who are eligible for jabs. “We store the shots for them and rest assured that no dose goes to waste,” he said, amid a debate over whether Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, which require more precise storage conditions than CoronaVac, will go to waste if people do not show up to their appointments. Koca said health care teams, led by doctors at neighborhood clinics, would visit people who do not attend their appointments at their homes and give them advice to try to encourage them to get inoculated. “They will also be able to find out the causes of this aversion,” he said. The pandemic fuelled conspiracy theories, particularly on social media in Turkey, with anti-vaxxers and skeptics, as well as those who do not believe the pandemic is real using the opportunity to disseminate their propaganda. Though surveys show that the public is now more inclined to get vaccinated due to the increasing gravity of the situation, there are still many who are averse to it. Health care crews will give detailed information about the vaccine’s efficiency and its importance during their meetings with skeptics.

Koca warned that stricter measures may have to be taken in June if the current restrictions fail to curb the pandemic.

According to professor Mustafa Necmi Ilhan, a member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, this may involve new closures. “Our goal is to decrease the number of daily cases below 50,000 within the next two weeks. If it does not, several new restrictions may be considered, like the closure of shopping malls, barbers, a change in working hours both in the private and public sector and a complete switch to online education,” he told Demirören News Agency (DHA) on Thursday. Ilhan said the priority was to decrease the number of cases. “You cannot control the pandemic without decreasing the cases first. Some patients fall severely ill within two weeks and some among them, unfortunately, succumb to the disease in a period between 10 days and a month. With restrictions, we expect to bring the daily numbers below 50,000 in 15 days and below 40,000 in the following days. We will see the impact of restrictions only in two weeks,” he pointed out. It is something “doable,” according to Ilhan if the public follows the rules, namely wearing protective masks, adhering to social distancing and practicing good hygiene as more of the population is steadily vaccinated. “One in every four people aged 65 and above is not vaccinated. We can decrease the case numbers if they are vaccinated,” he said.

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