Lockdown spells disaster for Istanbul’s independent traders

Covid-19 measures introduced on Thursday mean sweet makers, tea sellers and other artisan traders will miss out on Eid Al Fitr trade

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Eid Al Fitr, known as the “sugar feast” in Turkey, is usually a boom time for Istanbul’s Altan Sekerli, which sells its own traditional Ottoman-style sweets flavoured with rose water, cinnamon and melon.

But this year, a severe snap Covid-19 lockdown is threatening the survival of the city’s decades-old independent businesses.

Established in 1865, the family-run shop has weathered the fall of an empire, the establishment of a republic and the rise and fall of sultans and elected leaders.

But now, with an economy in decline and no financial support from the government on the horizon, things have never been more difficult.

On Thursday evening, Turkey will head into a 17-day lockdown, the most extreme measure the country has taken so far as part of efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19.

I don't have anything else to do, I'll just stay home

In recent weeks, it reported record case numbers, peaking at more than 63,000 daily in mid-April.

Critics say the government was too fast to come out of its earlier restrictions in March, causing unnecessary loss of lives.

Almost 40,000 people have died from the coronavirus in Turkey.

Residents will have to stay indoors except for essential shopping trips and urgent medical treatment, although supermarkets will be allowed to open six days a week.

The move leaves many small and independent businesses, which rely on the festive boost brought by Eid sales, in fear of how they will cope with the closure.

“It’s good to close because there is a Covid problem but maybe it could be managed better and done after Ramadan," said Derya Sosyal, who works at Altan Sekerli.

"A lot of this area already made preparations for Eid."

Ms Sosyal prepares most of the Altan Sekerli sweets herself in a workshop above the shop, including lokum, or Turkish delight, and akide hard candy.

“We have been preparing for the holidays and now the stock will be wasted, we probably won’t be able to sell everything,” she said.

The shop is in Kucukpazar, an old independent shopping area in Istanbul’s historic Eminonu district.

Ms Sosyal said that even if they could get permission to stay open, there would be no one on the streets to sell to anyway.

The business, which has been in the family for five generations, makes little money in the summer, so the loss of two and a half weeks of trade at the busiest time of year is devastating.

With the country facing inflation of more than 16 per cent and a steadily declining currency, the family in recent years suffered significant cuts to their profits.

This year, they turned 50 kilograms of sugar into sweets to sell, but they usually produce 100kg worth and transport the goods to shops all over Anatolia.

They had to make cutbacks to save money, letting two members of staff go and dipping into their savings.

“Our sales and profit margins have remained the same, despite the increase in our expenses," said Adem Altan, 63, whose family have passed the shop down the generations.

"Over the last five years, everything from natural gas to electricity has increased again and again in price."

Mr Altan said they stocked up on supplies before they knew lockdown would come.

“We took goods from companies for the holidays but we have no way to return them now so we are stuck with them.”

Altan Sekerli is just one of Turkey’s many independent businesses experiencing their worst year on record, while chain supermarkets will be allowed to continue to trade.

The International Monetary Fund found Turkey to be one of the worst three countries for offering Covid financial support to its people.

Opposition parties came out in force to say that they agree with the lockdown, but they do not agree with the lack of aid.

"Every household impacted by the lockdown should be granted cash aid of at least 1,000 liras [$120] an adult and 500 liras a child, without an application process or conditions," former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and current Future Party leader said on Twitter.

Two weeks ago, Turkey brought forward its night-time curfew from 9pm to 7pm on weekdays, and reintroduced full weekend lockdowns.

But the measures were insufficient to bring the pandemic under control and medical groups urged tougher measures.

Owners of a tea shop a short walk from Altan Sekerli, which has been run for almost 60 years in a centuries-old caravanserai, said they have never seen worse profits than in the past year, with a local barber and a mirror seller agreeing.

“I don’t have anything else to do, I’ll just stay home,” said Ozturk, who runs the tea shop his father founded. “I don’t want this lockdown but what can I do?”

Among the hardest hit, however, are the informal workers who have neither a steady job nor a business to fall back on.

Mehmet, 35, a Kurdish waste collector and father of three from the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir, earns between 200 and 300 Turkish lira a week collecting cardboard and plasticto sell to the recycling plants.

He has already had his rates slashed and now he will be faced with more days without work.

“Even if I go out in the lockdown, there won’t be any waste to collect,” Mehmet said.