People are trying to adapt to a new life without protective masks after Turkey abolished the mask mandate necessitated by the now dwindling COVID-19 pandemic.
Masks are slowly disappearing from faces, though some were still cautious on Wednesday to keep them on, one day after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced an end to mandatory mask use in Turkey amid a reduction in COVID-19 pandemic cases.
The mandate, in fact, is not entirely scrapped but is expected to end altogether soon. For a while, masks will still be required to be worn at hospitals and in mass transit. In the meantime, they are likely to stay in pockets and handbags and, for people in risk groups, on faces.
It was only a few months after the first cases of the coronavirus were reported in the country in 2020 that Turkey enacted measures regarding the pandemic. This was the “new normal,” as described by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan back then.
This “normal,” which included the end of the travel ban and ban on restaurants and cafes, was replaced with another “normal” when the coronavirus cases started climbing again, forcing authorities to impose more strict measures including lockdowns. Today, the country has switched to the latest stage in the pandemic and scrapped the last standing rule: wearing masks indoors.
Though everyone felt suffocated by having to wear masks for years, it was probably children who were most affected. Schools, which were fully opened for in-person education last year after a hiatus, required students to wear masks, regardless of their age.
Some were apparently unaware of the change and arrived at schools wearing masks while others celebrated the end of the practice.
“It was too difficult to attend the classes with masks,” Ilkin Tuncay, a first-grader at a school in western province Izmir’s Karabağlar district, told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Wednesday. “I love the school, my friends and teachers but masks were a problem. We could not play freely. I am happy that we don’t have to wear them any longer. I hope we will never be forced to wear them again,” Gece Reyhan Yazar, another student, said.
National Education Minister Mahmut Özer told reporters on Tuesday that the pandemic affected the education system, including “18 million students and 1.2 million teachers” but they overcame the odds despite keeping schools open. Özer heaped praise on teachers who sacrificed their comfort by attending classes with masks and setting an example for society with the “highest vaccination rate” among other professions.
Professor Mustafa Necmi Ilhan, a member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, was with President Erdoğan as the latter announced a landmark decision at the Presidential Complex on Tuesday. Ilhan, who was among scientists recommending the move, says the pandemic process is “coming to an end.”
Ilhan told Ihlas News Agency (IHA) on Wednesday that Turkey can freely “get together” during the upcoming Islamic holiday Ramadan Bayram (Eid al-Fitr) but people should still exert caution around those aged 65 and above and those with chronic illnesses, two groups still at high risk of COVID-19 infection.
He said the decision to end the mask mandate was “correct.” “We are going through a dynamic process and at this stage, it is the right move. From now on, personal protective measures (rather than a mandate imposed by the government) will be in place. If people have symptoms, they should continue wearing masks and self-isolate,” he said.
Masks will not be mandatory everywhere once the number of daily cases drops below 1,000. There were 2,511 cases on Tuesday, and Ilhan says if the current momentum prevails, downward trends will accelerate further by the beginning of the summer. “Current figures have been more or less the same for the past two weeks,” he noted.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca echoed the positive sentiment. In his first remarks to reporters after Tuesday’s decision, Koca said on Wednesday that they were “happy to leave tough days behind.” “We removed the fear of the pandemic from our minds. We are safe now. We have vaccines, we have drugs,” Koca told reporters in the western province of Aydın during an official visit.
The minister said Turkey’s army of health care workers, who number 1.3 million, and the “whole nation” “made important sacrifices” by complying with the restrictions required by the pandemic.
Koca underlined that wearing protective masks should be “a habit” for people suffering from upper respiratory tract infections, pointing out that influenza cases had “disappeared” when people wore masks in the early years of the pandemic.
On the state of foreign visitors, namely tourists, Koca said that although they had already lifted the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test requirement, they would continue monitoring their situation and if a risk is detected, they may take extra measures.