ETHE EUROPEAN AUTOCRATS have different views on covid-19 and strong drinks. Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus, said vodka could ward off the virus. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan disagrees. Shortly after ordering Turks to stay at home for 18 days, starting April 29, after a record increase in covid cases, his government said it would ban the sale of alcohol throughout the lockdown.
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The reaction was as predictable as a hangover after too many glasses of raki, a local fire water with anise sometimes called “lion’s milk.” Thirsty Turks have besieged supermarkets and liquor stores. Beer and wine have disappeared from the shelves at an unprecedented rate. Secular guys accused Mr. Erdogan of using a health crisis to impose an Islamist policy. Similar accusations arose when, a few weeks ago, the government ordered the closure of all dining establishments during the holy month of Ramadan, allegedly to fight the virus.
“This is a clear attempt to interfere with people’s privacy and their way of life,” said Veli Agbaba, vice-chairman of Turkey’s main opposition party, referring to the ban on the alcohol. It also has political overtones. Opposition supporters tend to be metropolitan and secular; supporters of the ruling party are more likely to be rural, pious and abstinent.
The arguments in favor of the new containment are difficult to dispute. Covid infections and deaths reached record levels in April. In the last two weeks of the month, Turkey reported the highest number of active cases per capita of any major country. The government’s handling of the pandemic has gone from decent to bad, if not worse. The spike in infections came after authorities relaxed restrictions in March. Mr Erdogan and his ministers flouted their own rules by attending large funerals and organizing rallies in stadiums crowded to the brim.
They didn’t explain exactly how banning alcohol sales would help. When Turkey imposed similar measures during the weekend shutdowns last year, Home Secretary Suleyman Soylu claimed that “all Western countries” had restricted alcohol sales during the pandemic and that the decision was “in accordance with scientific opinion”. In fact, only a handful of countries, including Thailand, India and South Africa, have imposed such bans. And although the WHO recommends that people avoid alcohol to protect their immune systems, it does not recommend that governments decide for them.
The backlash has been surprisingly strong. Dozens of supermarkets and liquor stores across Turkey have ignored the restrictions, arguing that they have no legal basis. But the authorities have started to redouble their efforts. At least one liquor salesman has been arrested. And on May 4, the government not only upheld the alcohol ban, but extended it, “to avoid overcrowding” in supermarkets, to other products it deemed “non-essential.” . Newly banned items range from toys and electronics to gardening tools. The Turks will have to prepare for two weeks without raki or rakes.
A version of this article was published online on May 2, 2021
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Erdogan’s Wine-Free Situation”