Turkish health workers on the front lines fighting coronavirus

As new coronavirus infections and deaths piled up in Turkey last week, the death of Mehtap Tahtalı, a 33-year-old nurse with underlying health conditions who caught the virus on duty, was a stark reminder of the risks faced by health workers fighting against COVID-19.

It was not until March 11 that Turkey officially recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus, but in the weeks since then the number of infected has risen at an alarming rate, reaching 5,698 on Friday with 2,069 new cases recorded in a single day. 

Health workers like Ayşe, a nurse at a hospital in Istanbul’s Çapa district, are on the front lines. But as the hospital wards fill up with coronavirus patients, staff have seen both pressure from above and problems arising in the hospital, to the extent that Ayşe has asked us not to use her real name. 

The main issue at the Çapa hospital where Ayşe works is a lack of space, with the incoming patients already outstripping the number of adequate rooms in the aging hospital even though it is now exclusively treating coronavirus patients. Since around half of the rooms do not have their own toilets, patients have been forced to crowd into rooms that do, and it is common for five people to share one room. 

The situation is not yet as severe as Spain and Italy, where patients are being treated on gurneys in the corridors. But with the number of new patients rising exponentially, Ayşe said, the hospital was already preparing for that eventuality.

The doctors are already hard pressed to deal with the crisis, and many are concerned about supplies of protective equipment. The government has assured the public that the country is well stocked with protective gear, and Ayşe said they are given masks, coveralls and caps that they dispose of each day as well as goggles that are disinfected after use. 

Nevertheless, the fear of contracting the virus is constant, Ayşe said, and some personnel have thought of quitting due to receiving faulty equipment or because of shortages. Some senior doctors have even refused to come to the hospital, she said, leaving their assistants and other healthcare workers to bear the strain alone. Nurses and other hospital workers have been working particularly hard during this period, she said. 

While all healthcare workers are doing their part to fight the coronavirus, Ayşe said it was an injustice that support staff were not receiving anything from the bonus pay the government extended to medical workers.

“It’s unfair, because we can’t look after patients on our own. All health workers are playing their part,” she said.
Staff like cleaners and medical secretaries have not been offered any of the three-month supplements to wages, which run from 6,000 liras ($930) per month for doctors to 1,550 liras ($240) for nurses and 750 liras for medical technicians.

“But many of our secretary colleagues have tested positive for the virus, and if something happens to a patient the doctors and support staff intervene together,” Ayşe said.

While Ayşe and her colleagues are working around the clock to treat people who come down with the coronavirus, the government has gradually ramped up its measures to stop its spread. These started with business closures and a curfew on elderly and vulnerable people before tighter restrictions were imposed on Friday, including restrictions on group gatherings and travel between cities. 

But the government has held back from the kind of comprehensive lockdown that many have been calling for, and one health worker told Ahval they thought this has been one reason the precautions in Turkey have been lacking. Moreover, they said, no precautions have been taken to prevent health workers from spreading the infection to their neighbours when they go home from work because they have not been provided with dorms and special facilities to keep them away from the public.
“We catch the infection from patients. Then we spread it to others when we go elsewhere,” the worker said. “I’ve been looking after coronavirus patients all night. Let’s say I’ve caught the virus. I go tomorrow morning to get bread from the bakery, is there a chance that I pass it on to the baker?”

This problem has been compounded by the Turkish authorities’ reluctance to administer tests since the pandemic reached Turkey, Ayşe said, noting that the virus’s long incubation period meant that the current rise in patients related to people who had been infected up to two weeks ago. 

Back then, Ayşe said, healthcare workers had asked to be tested but were turned away because there were no kits in Çapa. Some have since fallen sick, but she said the precautions taken to prevent them from passing on the virus had been insufficient.

“The secretary fell ill and their whole family was placed under quarantine. But the family isn’t at hospital – aren’t they going out for groceries?” Ayşe said.
With large numbers of workers at the hospital already falling ill with the virus, Ayşe believes its spread is already dangerously close to veering out of control, and even if far tighter measures are imposed it will be impossible to overcome the pandemic before June. 

As the situation worsens, the government has kept one eye on keeping control of the narrative even as it struggles to keep the coronavirus under control. Several journalists have faced legal action for reporting detailed information on coronavirus cases, and the government has also gone after social media users for posts on the virus that it deems provocative.

Ahmet, a nurse whose hospital in Istanbul was already straining under the pressure of the coronavirus, told Ahval that several of his colleagues had already been reprimanded for speaking to the press and like Ayşe asked us not to use his real name.

Ahmet said the dominant feeling among health workers at his hospital was fear – fear of a new and deadly virus that little is known about, fear that they could catch it from the patients, and fear that they might spread it to their loved ones or neighbourhoods.

Ahmet is self-isolating as much as he can, and only leaves the house to go to work or to buy his groceries. Even then, he tries to keep a two-metre distance between himself and anyone else. At the hospital he only removes his mask to eat, and while tending to patients he dons a full protective outfit and does his best not to come into contact with anything they have touched. Many of Ahmet’s colleagues who have elderly or vulnerable relatives have had to take extra precautions to isolate themselves and protect their families.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.