Istanbul, streets during the pandemic

Masks could no longer be mandatory in March

Experts are concerned on the large number of people with only one dose of the vaccine. Sale of masks has fallen to less than half in Istanbul.

Masks could no longer be mandatory in March: that is at least what, according to several Turkish media in last days, the health authorities of the Eurasian country would be considering, believing that in a month the evolution of the COVID pandemic will have improved enough so that both masks and the social distance are no longer necessary.

The measure will not initially apply to all spaces, however; the information indicates that initially, masks and social distance will no longer be mandatory by law in public spaces such as parks or streets, as well as on terraces and other open spaces in restaurants and cafes. On the other hand, at least for now, masks will continue to be mandatory in closed places such as shopping malls, cinemas and theatres, and also on public transport, including buses, trains or planes.

Even though the end of the mandatory mask is being considered in certain areas – provided that coronavirus infections fall in the coming weeks, as forecasts point out – experts emphasise that people at risk, such as those over 65 years or those suffering from chronic diseases, should extreme precautions to avoid exposing themselves to contagion.

Concern about high number of people with only one dose of the vaccine

This warning is especially important if one takes into account that, of the 9 million people over 65 years of age who live in Turkey, less than half – some 4.5 million – have been vaccinated with the full schedule, being this age group one of those who reject vaccines the most.

To date, some 53 million of Turkey’s 84 million people have received at least two doses of the coronavirus vaccine, and 27 million have received at least a third booster dose. But there are still 31 million Turks with only one dose of the vaccine, who are probably unprotected against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, especially against new strains.

Turkish Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca himself stated last week that the end of the mandatory nature of masks would be debated during the meeting of the Scientific Council scheduled for these days. Another issue – he said – is that of the mandatory nature of PCR tests: “We want only those who have symptoms to be tested. Those infected must wear a mask and quarantine,” he declared.

The sale of masks falls in Istanbul

Mandatory or not, the fact is that the sale of face masks in large cities like Istanbul has not stopped falling in recent months, according to the pharmaceutical sector of the most populous city in Turkey. “In the early days of the pandemic, we were having trouble finding masks, and the demand was huge. But all that has changed now. We used to sell 50 boxes of masks; now, we barely sell 15 to 20,” Kübra Yılmaz, owner of a pharmacy in Istanbul, told press.

Yılmaz believes that this is a consequence of people’s increased confidence due to the advancement of vaccination, but also of citizens becoming familiar with the risk of the virus, so now they take less precautions. “People seem to be less cautious now; many no longer wear the mask on the street,” she says.

Opinions on the street itself seem divided; from those who believe that the evolution of the pandemic makes mask unnecessary in most situations, to the more cautious, who believe that it should continue to be used for a while. This is the case of Gülhadiye Gür, a woman with kidney problems who, in statements to the Hürriyet newspaper, argued that masks should be mandatory for at least one more year.

“There are many people with chronic diseases, but nobody cares. People only follow the rules about wearing a mask on buses. Young people especially, ignore them”, she complains. Aysel Mert, another resident of Istanbul, is also among those who thinks that masks are necessary, and affirms that even if they are no longer mandatory by law, she will continue to wear a mask. “The pandemic is still there, and I am afraid,” she concludes.