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Times of Crisis are Times for Politics

Roar writer Derin Koçer argues that politics, and the accountability of politicians, are integral factors in countries’ responses to large-scale crisis.

When an earthquake shook the Turkish town of Elazig in January 2020, the state-backed Turkish Red Crescent humanitarian organisation tweeted that they needed money – and they were asking the people to send it in via SMS. This was a clear declaration of a lack of resources.

However, the Turkish state has been issuing “earthquake taxes” to citizens since 1999, the profits of which total 70 billion Liras over two decades and are designed to be used in times like this. Moreover, the same institution that didn’t have money to do its job rented a luxurious mansion with a swimming pool some months ago, spending more than 600,000 Liras to furnish it; but in a time of crisis, the government was behind the eight-ball.

When I tweeted these facts in response to the Turkish Red Crescent’s campaign and asked, “what happened to the money we have paid over the last 20 years?”, government-backing (and backed) trolls went into “total war” mode, accusing me of being “unpatriotic”. Apparently, from their perspective, politics should stop no matter what when a crisis hits. I disagreed. Because of the crisis, irresponsible spending of taxpayer money had surfaced, and accountability was needed. The government tried to hide behind national solidarity.

Unsurprisingly, a pattern emerged: When the Covid-19 pandemic forced Turkey to go into lockdown, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave the public an IBAN number during his address to the nation, and asked for help – the people’s money, once more. At the same time, Germany was unveiling a recovery package of €130 billion. Foreseeably, those who opposed this recklessness were labelled “unpatriotic”, and some were even called “traitors”: The day after Mr Erdogan’s speech, a student was arrested because of his social media activities.

This is not a Turkish issue. Those who are not up to the task of governing a country, especially in times of crisis, always seek a place to hide from being held accountable; and they do not hesitate to attack those who dare question them.

The Covid-19 pandemic is one of the all-too-rare times when leaders’ masks are lowered. Incompetence can be seen clearly, with millions of people infected and thousands dying before their time. And, crucially, it isn’t even close to being over: Most experts think that the world should be ready for a tough winter, and though a vaccine may arrive quickly, its production and distribution will certainly be one of the toughest logistical challenges of our generation. As former Conservative MP Rory Stewart put it clearly back in March, politicians are responsible for deciding how to manage this crisis. Those who continue to fail must be held accountable if the coming months are to be handled effectively.

American President Donald Trump, who faces an election in two weeks, is a clear example: When Trump fell ill to the virus – which he disregarded publicly for months even though he knew by February how dangerous it can be – both his opposition and some of his supporters rang the same bells of solidarity during a national crisis. The day President Trump was sent to the hospital, Joe Biden’s campaign, running the message of “decency” as a central theme, strategically ceased down its negative ads against Trump. The same day, Trump’s campaign was sending messages to supporters about “Lyin’ Obama” and “Phony Kamala Harris”. They never even considered decency.

Importantly, Trump’s illness was always a larger story than the president’s health: It was a reflection of his government’s failure to deal with this crisis. Despite about one-in-five Covid deaths in the world occurring in the US, the country’s share of the world population is below 5 per cent.

The Trump Administration’s handling of the virus has been a story of incompetence from day one. It couldn’t decide on what to do with masks, even though scientific evidence clearly showed they were crucial to slowing the spread of the virus. President Trump mocked Biden for wearing them – even after falling ill, he continued to hold unmasked rallies. He even argued for drinking bleach as a cure, and wished the virus will “go away”. Trump distanced himself from one of his government’s most trusted faces, Dr Anthony Fauci, because the latter man refused to fall in line with the Trump administration’s message that everything was going all right. Now, he finds Biden’s promise to follow scientific advice funny.

Unsurprisingly, according to Navigator’s data, the pandemic remains the top priority for voters by far. But, in a recent interview, Mr Trump said that he would’ve done “not much” differently if he had the chance.

Similar examples can be seen all around the world: The mixed messaging of Boris Johnson in the UK; Jair Bolsonaro’s abysmal handling of the virus in Brazil; the Turkish Health Ministry’s manipulation of Covid data. It is extremely difficult to deal with a once-in-a-generation crisis, but this doesn’t mean that governments should be immune to criticism. Contrarily, holding them accountable to their wrongdoings may be the most effective way to correct them. Silencing politics can only make things worse. Especially in times of crisis, holding governments accountable sounds exactly like patriotism to me.


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