Ankara, Turkey – As Turkey mulls easing coronavirus restrictions, the governing party has come under fire for holding packed political rallies in the region that has the country’s greatest rate of cases.
In recent weeks, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been holding a series of gatherings across the country, most attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan either in person or via video call.
However, it is events held in the Black Sea provinces of Rize, Trabzon, Giresun and Ordu that have drawn particular criticism from medical figures and the opposition.
Turkey began announcing weekly province-by-province infection levels two weeks ago and the four northeastern provinces have recorded some of the largest numbers.
Rize recorded 200.08 cases per 100,000 people, according to the latest figures, while Trabzon saw 207.54 cases.
Giresun had 217.51 and Ordu, the province with the highest rate of infection in the country, had 228.40.
By comparison, Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s two most populous provinces, recorded 68.23 and 35.39 cases per 100,000 respectively.
The fifth province with case levels of more than 200 per 100,000 – Samsun, which is on 202.94 – lies to the west of Ordu.
Between them, the five provinces accounted for 17 percent of Turkey’s new COVID-19 cases last week.
“We are holding a meeting during the pandemic and the hall is filled to the brim,” Erdogan told the congress in his home city of Rize on February 15.
Sinan Adiyaman, a member of the Turkish Medical Association’s COVID-19 monitoring board, linked the party’s meetings to infection rates.
“The number of cases is increasing wherever the government is holding congresses,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They also held a congress in [the Mediterranean city of] Mersin and the number of cases increased there as well. This is also the case in the Black Sea provinces because thousands of people attend these congresses.”
Adiyaman added: “The government ignores the recommendations and warnings of the health minister, the World Health Organisation, the Turkish Medical Association and other health professional organisations.”
Ravza Kavakci Kan, an AK Party member of Parliament for Istanbul, said the congresses had observed the rules on distancing, hygiene and mask-wearing.
Elderly party members have been denied entrance and letters were issued beforehand to warn people of the restrictions.
“Saying that the congresses, especially in the Black Sea region, have led to increases is not scientific and does not have any basis [in fact],” she said, adding: “When we look at the recorded cases, there’s no evidence that shows that congresses led to that.”
Kavakci Kan described the meetings as an essential part of the democratic process.
“I understand the concerns but this is a process that needs to take place,” she said.
“There were a lot of postponed events and a lot of district congresses were done with minimum participation. We’re trying to abide by the rules and restrictions as much as possible. I understand all the criticism but we tried to take the utmost precaution in this process.”
The provincial party gatherings are being held in the run-up to the AK Party’s full congress on March 24.
The meetings were suspended at the end of last year due to the pandemic but resumed last month.
Although VIPs sit in a socially distanced area on the floor of the conferences, which are generally held in large sports halls or arenas, the terraced seating at the sides is usually packed with thousands of supporters, many bussed in from neighbouring provinces.
Monday’s AK Party congress in the Aegean port of Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, drew heavy criticism when images of tightly packed crowds pushing through turnstiles were shared on social media.
The following day, one former AK Party official who attended announced on Twitter that he had tested positive for COVID-19. He later deleted the tweet.
The scenes led opposition members of Parliament to call for attendees to be quarantined. Opposition iyi Party member of Parliament Lutfu Turkkan criticised mass political gatherings at a time when restaurants, cafés and other public spaces remain closed.
“You cannot go to a concert, theatre play or cinema,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “The only social activity that you can go to is the corona congresses of the [AK Party].”
Others say the Black Sea cases are due to factors such as city residents spending weekend lockdowns with relatives in villages or large numbers attending funerals despite rules limiting attendance to 30 mourners.
“Even before the weekend lockdown starts, people travel to their villages,” Giresun resident Ilker Guney, 53, said. “In villages in particular, the rules are ignored.”
Faruk Aydin, head of microbiology at the Black Sea Technical University, called for special measures in the five provinces such as travel restrictions and stricter lockdowns.
“There is an equal amount of positivity in almost all villages, cities and towns,” he said.
“There is no distinction between villages or cities. All the positive [results] are equally distributed everywhere.
“We observe that they live together, that travelling between the village and the city can be made easily and, in this respect, the restrictions do not constitute an obstacle.”
Across the country, Turkey is seeing the highest number of daily rates since mid-January – 9,572 on Thursday – as it prepares to allow many businesses to reopen next month.
The country has reported nearly 2.7 million cases since March last year and more than 28,350 deaths.
Meanwhile, opposition parties, particularly the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), have faced restrictions and fines on their political events.
Another event that sparked criticism was the packed funeral of a leading Muslim scholar in Istanbul on Sunday. Erdogan and Health Minister Fahrettin Koca were among scores of mourners.
The minister, who heads the government’s call for people to observe pandemic measures, came under particular censure and later apologised.
“As [a population of] 83 million, everyone should contribute to the struggle during the pandemic by making equal sacrifices,” he said.
In a news conference on Thursday, Koca ruled out a full shutdown in the Black Sea provinces.
Commenting on the AK Party congresses, he added: “Transmission is increasing with close contact. We have told our citizens to stay away from closed areas. It would be too much for me to say anything [more] about it.”