Having affected the whole world and caused the deaths of thousands of people, COVID-19 emerged in Wuhan, China in December 2019. COVID-19 then spread globally and caused a pandemic to be declared around the world. It has left thousands of people around the world with economic, social, cultural, and health problems. In order to prevent increasing levels of social anxiety – a likely effect from this crisis period – protective and preventative economic practices, social policies, and social service practices have been implemented in Turkey as in the rest of the world.
Many people working in the private sector have been left unemployed due to the restrictions and measures taken in the world and Turkey. This increase in the number of unemployed has also led to an increase in the number of people and families in need of social assistance and social services. Various social assistance programs have been designed for minimizing the risks caused by unemployment and for providing citizens with minimal life assistance. In the face of this economic crisis, Turkey has economically supported workers and employers by introducing a three-month ‘prohibition of dismissal’ and ‘short-term working allowance.’
Social services is a profession based on human rights and the principles of social justice that supports social change and aims to solve problems and strengthen human relations in order to improve human well-being. The current pandemic and economic crisis being experienced has a greater impact on daily laborers and unregistered workers who are not covered under the umbrella of social security as well as people and groups in need of temporary or permanent social assistance and social services. In this context, the social services profession, which aims to increase the well-being of individuals, families, groups, and society, as well as social workers as the implementers of this profession have successfully fulfilled the social responsibility that have fallen upon them during the pandemic.
Affecting all communities, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a greater impact on applicant groups within the areas of social services. Children in need of protection and those with special needs such as autism and mental disabilities, as well as young people, women, elderly, marginalized groups, mentally ill, homeless, and refugees have experienced this pandemic process more severely than other segments of society. Attempts were made to decrease the risks of the pandemic for applicants staying in orphanages, juvenile centers, centers for unhindered living, violence prevention centers, women’s shelters, elderly care and nursing homes, and other institutions and organizations by taking the necessary protective measures beginning in March 2020 when the first cases began to appear – up until today.
Turkey has taken timely measures against this pandemic, planning and immediately implementing many effective interventions under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The Ministry of Health of the Republic of Turkey as well as the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board and Social Sciences Board have successfully carried out this process on a scientific basis. It was possible to overcome this process without mass chaotic panic experienced in other countries at the beginning of the pandemic due to lack of medical equipment and face masks.
The social policy practices and activities of the Ministry of Family, Labour, and Social Services (MoFLSS) since March 2020 when the first cases were seen in Turkey under the following two dimensions.
Community-Oriented Social Services and Assistance (Policies and Strategies)
In order to control the pandemic, many countries have resorted to social distancing, isolation and quarantine practices. Some countries implemented mandatory quarantine and isolation state policies. During the first response Turkey displayed to the pandemic, curfews were imposed on specific days and these practices were relaxed over time in a controlled manner. While isolation was mandatory for citizens above the age of 65 and for people who were described to be in ‘high-risk groups,’ restrictions on these groups have been relaxed as the government succeeding in controlling the pandemic. While the responsibility of citizens during this pandemic has become to prioritize the use of masks, social distancing and hygiene, with the aim of turning the tide of the economy, the state has implemented many different policies.
Community-oriented policies were conducted by the MoFLSS alongside many other ministries in Turkey. Providing income security to Turkish citizens who had to live on a certain income was essential. MoFLSS implemented significant policy implementations in this context and made efforts to minimize the economic and social problems caused by the pandemic. Among the practices that drew most attention are:
- Cash Support: The best example of social assistance was given with the “Together, We Are Enough, Turkey.” Determined by an income test, the ministry provided 1,000 Turkish Lira (TL) to 620,000 households in need. The total amount delivered through this campaign reached around 6.2 billion TL. In line with the country’s needs, resources allocated for social assistance increased continuously.
- Increasing Retirement Pensions and Advancing Holiday Bonuses: Minimum pension levels were raised to 1,500 TL through the Purse Law. Bonuses planned to be given during the holidays were advanced in support of this due to the Coronavirus pandemic. In addition, pensions for retirees over the age of 76 were home-delivered to bolster quarantine and isolation procedures.
- Short-term Working Allowance: Short-term working allowances are paid monthly on the 5th of each month to workers themselves for periods not worked to complete the weekly work spans applied at the workplace. In order to be entitled to this allowance, the applicant’s social security premium must have been paid for a minimum of 450 days and the premium payment must have been made continuously within the last 60 days. The short-term working allowance is provided based on the employer’s statement about their employees. Employees and employers were supported in this process with a total minimum wage support of 7 billion TL. A total of 2,071,032,826 TL unemployment allowances was provided to 717,911 people from the Unemployment Insurance Fund. Thus, the total amount of aid, payments, and support currently made since the pandemic began to be seen in Turkey in March has reached 20,493,602,651 TL. This support is still ongoing.
- Encouraging Flexible and/or Working from Home Alternatives: Employees in both public and private sectors and high-risk households have been encouraged to work remotely or flexibly with mutual agreement with their employers.
Social Services for Applicants Receiving Services from the MoFLSS
After the first case was seen in Turkey, necessary precautions were taken in all institutions and organizations affiliated with the MoFLSS. The entry and exists of children, people with disabilities, the elderly, and women to institutions were brought under control and visitors were not accepted except under emergency situations. The working shifts of personnel were revised and the communication and contact these personnel had with other segments of society was attempted to be controlled.
- Children: Since 2018, social and economic support has been provided to all children’s homes (1,192 institutions and 6,199 children), orphanage complexes (111 institutions and 6,383 children) and child support centers (63 institutions and 1,632 children) affiliated with the MoFLSS. In order to be able to manage the anxiety, depression, fear and stress that the pandemic can cause for children, social workers and psychologists have provided psychosocial support to both children in state institutions and children who are cared for at home.
- Women: Centers for Preventing and Monitoring Violence (ŞÖNİM) and 145 Women’s Safehouses in 81 provinces provide services at a capacity of 3,482. In this context, services for female victims of violence have continued uninterrupted despite the COVID-19 outbreak. With the #183 Social Support Helpline, psychological, legal, and economic consultancy services continued to be offered free of charge to women in need who have been subject to violence or are at risk of being exposed together with their children.
- People with Disabilities and the Elderly: Individuals over 65 with chronic diseases constitute a high-risk group in the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, the protection and control of nursing homes, where this group is concentrated, during this pandemic process is of great importance. Since March 2020, care and health services have been provided to a total of 27,500 elderly people in 426 Nursing Home and Elderly Rehabilitation Centers affiliated to the Ministry.
The new types of coronavirus measures taken in nursing homes have been upgraded one more level, and the elderly and staff working here have undergone comprehensive health screenings. Compared to other countries, the number of beds and ventilators allocated to elderly patients in Turkey during the COVID-19 pandemic is above average. In this process, the World Health Organization has highlighted the exemplary work Turkey conducted in protecting nursing homes. One of the most important reasons for low levels of deaths in nursing homes is due to the presence of a strong integrated health service in Turkey. Psychosocial support services have been provided through provincial directorates affiliated with the MoFLSS to people over the age of 65, those with disabilities and those caring for them, relatives of martyrs and veterans, and foster families quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic process as well as those coming from abroad and kept under quarantine (those placed in Higher Education Student Loan and Housing Board dorms), their relatives, those in need, and those personally requesting psychosocial support.
- VEFA Social Support Groups: The efforts of support groups made up of NGO volunteers and personnel like the Red Crescent as well as public employees such as police, gendarmerie, guards, and Disaster and Emergency Management Authority personnel, especially those working for individuals and families living alone at home and the elderly and disabled who are unable to leave their homes, has been of great importance. Social Support Groups were established within the Provincial and District Governorships associated with the Ministry of Interior. Starting with the basic needs of individuals and families, many needs focused on social services and social aid have been met by these groups. AFAD’s protective and preventative social services and social assistance have also held an important place during this process. Organized in such a short time and immediately intervening in social service applicants, Turkey’s Social Support Groups have taken their place in the literature with their successes during the COVID-19 pandemic process.
- In-Home Care and In-Home Health Services: While the financial support transferred to these health services in many developing countries was limited and care fees were taken from patients, these two services have been maintained without interruption in Turkey by paying attention to the pandemic conditions.
- Turkish Red Crescent and Green Crescent Services: The Turkish Red Crescent Society has prepared trainings and informative publications and videos regarding COVID-19 and made them available to the public since the first day of the outbreak. In addition, food parcels and hygiene kits have been distributed to those in need as well as visors for healthcare workers. Having rushed to aid our citizens after the earthquakes in Elazığ and İzmir, the Red Crescent continues to play an important role in providing social assistance and social services in Turkey.
Effectively fighting against tobacco, alcohol, and drugs – in a nutshell all addictions – through the Green Crescent Consultancy Center, the Green Crescent established the COVID-19 Psychological Support Line in order to provide free service to those experiencing intense anxiety during the pandemic and those showing signs of psychological discomfort. During this period, a total of 2,286 people were provided with telephone support, and 73 people have been provided with online therapy services.
Lessons Learned and Recommendations
The pandemic has provided us with the opportunity to see the strengths and weaknesses of Turkey’s health and social services systems. The problems that emerge in organizing disaster management have been identified and in this way, it has been attempted to strengthen the dimensions that remain insufficient in healthcare services in Turkey. Despite the availability of vaccines, the processes of combatting COVID-19 are predicted to continue for the next few years. The important target groups of social services in Turkey will continue to be protected and cared for as a priority. All these applications have shown how powerful Turkey’s social state structure is. More, when considering COVID-19 as a trauma, we should consider the post-traumatic stress disorders and depression, which can occur after an epidemic that will be seen in a large part of society and should plan the necessary psychosocial and rehabilitative strategies now.
The consequences that unemployment has created for individuals and families will continue to be felt for another period. Due to this, it is necessary to continue the short-term working allowance in order to bring the social benefits, which are the main components of social protection, and the economy, to a certain level.
In any case, it needs to be underlined that hygiene, face masks and social distancing will remain as our new normal in the upcoming years and that this will have to be maintained. Taking the ‘new normal’ of social distancing into account, we should review care plans and services for social welfare applicants and bring new models to the agenda. For example, social service organizations (nursing homes, orphanages, and foster homes) can be planned with a more horizontal architecture and an understanding close to nature. Spatial resources belonging to local governments can be used for the rehabilitation of people with disabilities. Finally, more online projects such as group studies and social activities can be developed baring into account factors such as face masks, social distancing and hygiene rules.