Istanbul mayor says time running out to halt coronavirus spread

By Daren Butler
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Istanbul mayor says time running out to halt coronavirus spread

FILE PHOTO: Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu is awarded by Berlin's Mayor Michael Mueller with the German-Turkish Friendship Award 'Kybele 2019' in Berlin

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Europe's largest city, Istanbul, is running out of time to impose a lockdown and stop a surge in coronavirus cases as around two million people are still going out into the streets every day, its mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said on Thursday.

Compounding the problem, revived tensions between his opposition CHP municipality and President Tayyip Erdogan's government are distracting attention from the battle against the disease, he told Reuters in an interview. [L8N2BP5D2]

The number of coronavirus cases in Turkey has surged above 18,000 in less than three weeks.

The central government has urged people to stay at home and ordered a string of restrictions. But it has stopped short of imposing a full lockdown on public life in an effort to cushion the economic impact.

Imamoglu repeated his call for a stay-at-home order for his city, the country's commercial hub where 60% of the cases have been recorded.

"The measures you take for 16 million people, the methods for stopping the pandemic will save Turkey," he said at the mayoral residence.

"We are in the most critical time," he added. "Looking at the situation across the world, we are in a period that is very intense and could lead to figures that will upset us very much."

He said an estimated 15% of Istanbul's population were still using public transport or private vehicles.

"This means more than two million people (are still going out), and this is very frightening. It's as much as the population of a prominent city in Europe."


CALL FOR COOPERATION

Last year Imamoglu beat Erdogan's AK Party candidate in municipal elections, ending 25 years of rule in Istanbul by the AKP and its Islamist predecessors. Since then they have been at odds over issues such as funding and a city canal project.

This week Imamoglu, seen as a possible future candidate for the presidency, launched a fundraising campaign for the needy in the city, but it was blocked by Ankara, reviving the tensions.

Erdogan criticised the municipal fundraising, saying the presidency must run aid efforts.

On the calls for a lockdown, Erdogan has said Turkey must "keep wheels turning" to sustain an economy recovering from recession.

The government has halted all international flights, limited domestic travel, closed schools, cafes, bars and suspended mass prayers and sports fixtures.

The mayor said he had sent messages to Erdogan and that they needed to establish an atmosphere where they can work together. But as yet the two have not spoken since the outbreak began.

"Around 60-65% of the problem in Turkey is in Istanbul right now. Therefore, we must be able to contact them directly and solve our issues together," he said.

Imamoglu said the state had been slow to respond to his repeated calls for talks, and it was wrong that he was only able to meet the state-appointed provincial governor last weekend, a month into the fight against the spread of the virus.

"Clearly it has a political basis and this saddens us because such environments cannot have politics," he said.

Imamoglu said he had held a video conference with around 45 of the biggest municipalities across the world and heard warnings, especially from Milan, Madrid and Rome, about how bad things could get.

"Istanbul is one of Europe's busiest cities economically. Stopping the pandemic in such a big city will bring comfort to Europe and the world too," he said.


(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Andrew Heavens)