Coronavirus: Turkey hopes to become first country to distribute free masks to entire nation

Covid-19 has killed at least 725 people in Turkey, a death toll second only to Iran in the Middle East

Borzou Daragahi
Tuesday 07 April 2020 17:18 BST
General assembly meeting of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey
General assembly meeting of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey

Turkey has launched an ambitious programme to get free surgical masks into the hands of all the nation’s 82 million residents in an effort to combat the spread of coronavirus while allowing the country’s tattered economy to recover.

This week Turkey launched a website where both citizens and official residents can register to receive five free surgical masks per week delivered by the national postal service. On Friday Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced new rules requiring all those in workplaces or markets to wear masks. He later banned the sale of the masks amid accusations of price-gouging.

Videos posted on social media showed bus drivers handing out free masks to passengers as they boarded. In an extraordinary moment on Tuesday, Turkey’s parliament in Ankara convened to discuss a coronavirus prisoner release law with lawmakers, journalists and council staff all wearing masks.

“We have enough mask stock and production plans for all of our citizens until the outbreak ends,” Mr Erdogan has been quoted as saying late Monday. “As the state, we are determined to provide free masks to all our citizens.”

Covid-19 has killed at least 725 people in Turkey, a death toll second only to Iran in the Middle East. At least 34,000 people have tested positive for the virus.

Strong anecdotal evidence suggests three-ply surgical masks that include a layer of bonded material reduce the rate of coronavirus infection in Asian cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Austria ordered all shoppers to wear masks, and Morocco recently made it mandatory to wear masks in public, selling them at a subsidised rate.

Turkey has shut down schools and ordered all residents over 65-years-old or under 20 to remain confined to their homes. But Mr Erdogan has vowed to keep the wheels of production turning, and many businesses, factories and construction sites remain operating -- to the chagrin of some opposition politicians who have demanded a more stringent lock down.

“Every factory that can work will continue to work,” he said on Monday. "Our farmers will not leave their land uncultivated.”

The ban on sales of the masks potentially kills off a lucrative source of income for pharmacies and medical supply companies which have jacked up prices for the products amid unprecedented global demand. Turkey is one of the world’s leading producers of medical personal protective equipment.

Mr Erdogan has also announced the construction of two 1,000-bed hospitals to treat pandemic patients in Istanbul, the city hardest hit by the virus.

Opposition figures claimed credit for both the free masks programme and the hospitals, but nonetheless praised the government for taking up the ideas. Canan Kaftancıoglu, head of the Istanbul branch of the opposition People’s Republican Party, wrote on Twitter that the country’s 13,000 to 14,000 postal delivery people weren’t enough to distribute the masks.

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