On April 29, with no prior warning, Turkey went into full lockdown for three weeks. Within 24 hours, four people committed suicide, all of them for the same reason: despair over their financial future. In all, 129 people took their own lives in April. Yet the psychological impact of Covid-related hardship and lack of financial assistance are subjects that the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his government have not sufficiently addressed.
The real suicide tally may well be higher, as the numbers are only from cases reported in the press. Opposition politician Gamze Taşcıer has called on the government to take action, describing the increase in suicides as “a pandemic in itself.”
A rising suicide rate is, unfortunately, nothing new in Turkey. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, suicides have increased by 89 percent in the last 20 years. A flagging economy, the instability of the Turkish lira, double-digit inflation, the rising cost of basic goods and the lack of steady employment have all pushed many people close to the edge. Then, Covid-19 tipped them over.
More than a year into the pandemic, the International Monetary Fund ranks Turkey alongside Albania and Mexico as countries that have provided the least financial assistance to their citizens. This is confirmed by a report published in February by the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey, which states that the government had spent only the equivalent of 1.1 percent of GDP on health and financial aid packages combined. The government’s own statistics show that 250,000 people registered as unemployed in February alone, while millions more have no regular income. That’s cause for a lot of stress.
Erdogan has said that around 3.7 million citizens who have been forced to cut their working hours have applied for short-term financial assistance to top up reduced salaries, and another million have received unemployment benefits during the pandemic. But the available financial aid rarely goes to those who most need it. According to Dr Vedat Bulut, secretary-general of the Turkish Medical Association, “ten percent went to the poor while 90 percent went to business owners.”
Hardest hit are small businesses, the self-employed and casual workers – none of whom qualify for government aid packages. The World Bank’s economic monitor report on Turkey states that 30 percent of the country’s working population is made up of casual or informal labor. Official figures from the Turkish Tradesmen and Craftsmen Registry Gazette show that 273 small businesses went bankrupt every day in 2020. That’s cause for more stress.
Manual laborers and musicians may not have much in common. But they share the unfortunate fate of having been almost completely neglected during the pandemic. It’s easy to dismiss entertainment as frivolous and not a “key” part of the economy, but that would be wrong. The music industry employs more than a million people in Turkey, none of whom has received any financial support from the government, neither in short-term assistance nor in unemployment benefit. As a consequence, the rock star Gaye Su Akyol claimed in a tweet that 105 musicians have committed suicide during the pandemic.
The vice-chair of the opposition Republican People’s Party, Gamze Akkuş İlgezdi, has claimed that withholding financial support from artists was “unconstitutional” and suggested that the culture and tourism ministry should remove the world “culture” from its title “if it is not going to help those in need.” Her proposal to use the tax the government collects on products such as DVDs and CDs to fund artists in need has also been rejected.
With poor conditions, low wages and long working hours, manual laborers were already suffering even before Covid-19 arrived in Turkey. ISIG, the body that monitors health and safety in the workplace, reports a five-fold increase in suicides in the last six years. The Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions predicts many more after the ban on layoffs is lifted in four months’ time.
“Most of these people cannot make ends meet. Everyone is in debt. They are using up what is left of their savings. These are desperate times,” said the confederation’s Nebile Irmak Çetin, in an interview with the newspaper, Independent Turkey, while Dr Doğan Kökdemir, professor of psychology at Başkent University, has warned of a “suicide contagion.”
Finally, on May 17, the president appeared finally to have acknowledged the depth of the despair afflicting his country. He announced a $555 million fund to disperse one-time payments of 3,000 Turkish lira ($356) to those worst-affected by the pandemic, including taxi drivers, restaurant workers and musicians.
But while the gesture is welcome, the government is still missing the point. A one-off handout may help people pay their bills and feed themselves for a while, but it will not ease the mental strain of worrying about the long-term.
The economic loss caused by the pandemic is obvious and calculable. One can also define and recognize the loss of social interaction. But the impact on mental health is less quantifiable and may not be felt for months or even years to come. For the government to ignore it now is not only to be dismissive of people’s current suffering, it is storing up trouble for the future.
Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.