First Person: Turkey During COVID-19

April 27, 2020

By Berrin Akyıldız

My 71-year-old father usually works with my sister in her pharmacy in a densely populated district of Istanbul. But now he’s not.

He was already in self-isolation in our little hometown, Rize, on the eastern Black Sea coast, as the country confirmed its first case of COVID-19 and as the government imposed a partial curfew for people over the age of 65.

With more than 110,000 cases, Turkey has overtaken China as the number-one emerging market with the most confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“That was the best decision we’ve ever taken,” my sister said in one of our daily calls, of my father self-isolating. She is now working alone in a busy pharmacy—her apprentice was diagnosed with COVID-19 just days after my father left for Rize.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and has upended everyone’s lives. I have never felt such mixed feelings since I moved to the United States: While I was worried for my family’s health back home, I was also worried for their jobs because Turkey was already in a macroeconomically vulnerable position before the pandemic struck.

The IMF’s most recent forecasts on the pandemic’s economic impact predicts that Turkey's economy will shrink by 5 percent in 2020 amid a worldwide recession of 3 percent.

I wanted to hear more from my friends and relatives on how they were navigating the crisis.

My cousin, Sedat Morgül, runs Hobiex Otomotiv A.Ş., a successful family-owned auto parts manufacturing company in Istanbul. The company exports parts and related products to more than 40 countries on five continents. He said that after COVID-19, production in the factories has continued at about 70 percent production capacity. There has not been a drop in demand because trucks, which rely on the company’s auto parts, are trying to keep supply chains running in their countries. The company’s revenue fell by 8 percent in March and 12 percent in April.

“We sent our employees with underlying health conditions home and continue the production in our factories. We asked everyone in the factory to take social distancing and wearing a mask/face covering seriously. Our factories are also closed during the curfews,” Sedat said. “All of the international fairs and trade shows we were planning to attend are cancelled or postponed.”

A worker manufactures auto parts at the Hobiex Otomotiv A.Ş factory in Silivri, Istanbul. Photo: Courtesy of Hobiex Otomotiv A.Ş. (2019)

Sedat added that they expect new digital marketing strategies to help them fill that gap and reach new markets. To date, none of the 400 employees working in the company’s factories has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

I called my middle school classmate, Tuncay Özdoğan, a few days later. He runs a security systems and telecommunications company in Istanbul’s Perpa Trade Center, where thousands of companies operate. When I called him, he was still working in his office at night; he had been trapped there when the first 48-hour curfew in Istanbul and in other major cities in the country was announced just hours before it took effect at midnight.

“The last five years was already difficult and we were about to speed up our business,” Tuncay told me. “All of the projects we were excited about are now on hold and I see this year already as a lost year. I am trying to use the time efficiently and work on projects which were on the shelf for a while.”

With COVID-19 forcing companies to adopt a remote work culture, the demand for software-as-a-service solutions like those that the Turkish startup, Journey Inc., is offering, is increasing.

“We are still foreseeing a 25-to 30-percent drop in our revenue projections,” said Tuğrul Türkkan, the CEO and the co-founder of Journey Inc., and a friend of mine from college.

The startup, which has offices in Istanbul and Palo Alto, California, is busy developing new remote solutions for companies’ new employee onboarding, experience, and learning needs.

During these check-ins with my family and friends back home, I realized that I didn’t know any women who own companies in Turkey except my sister who runs a pharmacy.

Journey Inc. is a Turkish startup with offices in Istanbul and Silicon Valley. Photo: Courtesy of Journey Inc. (2017)

Women in Turkey are underrepresented in entrepreneurship and business ownership as well as in management due to significant sociocultural and economic barriers. Turkey has one of the lowest female workforce participation rates among countries with similar income levels: According to the World Bank data, only 33 percent of Turkish women were economically active in 2019.

I was determined to check in with female private sector leaders. A friend put me in touch with  Aslıhan Atıl, General Manager of a hotel in Fethiye, a town that is popular with tourists. Fethiye is in southwestern Turkey where the Aegean and Mediterranean seas meet.

Tourism is one of Turkey’s biggest sources of income, with a revenue of $34.5 billion in 2019.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), in 2019, Turkey was the sixth-most visited country in the world with more than 52 million visitors annually, a 14 percent increase year-on-year. This year, Turkey was aiming to attract 58 million tourists.

“Our season starts in May and we are ready to host our guests in our hotel,” said Aslıhan. Only 5 percent of reservations have been cancelled—although guests can cancel at the last minute.

“Our biggest assets are our employees and none of our employees has been laid off so far,” Aslıhan said.

I am grateful for my family and friends back home. Amid the uncertainty ahead, all the calls I had with them gave me hope that even amid a global pandemic, their businesses and employees would survive this crisis. It made me remember a famous saying by the 13th Century poet and scholar Jalaluddin Rumi: “After hopelessness, there is so much hope and after darkness, there is the much brighter sun.”

Berrin Akyıldız is an IFC Communications Analyst who grew up in Rize, Turkey.

Published in April 2020