Turkish healthcare workers risk lives to fight coronavirus

Turkey still appears to be a long way from reaching its peak of new cases of the novel coronavirus, and while the deaths continue mounting – 79 people died on Thursday after contracting COVID-19 – the doctors and nurses fighting the virus are at the greatest risk.

To underline that, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca revealed this week that the coronavirus had been detected in 601 healthcare workers. Many working in the field believe the real number is far higher.

Cemil Taşçıoğlu from the Istanbul Çapa Faculty of Medicine this week became the first doctor in Turkey to die after contracting the coronavirus. In March, 33-year-old nurse Mehtap Tahtalı died with the virus. The first recorded COVID-19 victim in the country was an 89-year-old pharmacist. A week later, another worker at the same chemist passed away.

Yet while doctors are at the greatest risk, some have said they are not being provided with the correct equipment. It is difficult, though, for doctors to make their voices heard: Two whose statements on the virus went viral on social media later issued apologies, reportedly under pressure to do so because their words contradicted the government’s line. 

A group of healthcare workers were prevented by police from giving a statement on the virus to the press outside Ankara University İbni Sina Hospital, and five of them were later detained. Several doctors told Ahval they were unhappy with the conditions they were working under but would not speak on the record out of fear of reprisals. 

Dr. Filiz Ünal, the head of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB)’s family doctors’ branch, said that this atmosphere of fear would not benefit the government, the health workers or the public.

Instead, she said, the government must adopt a specific model to fight the virus as other countries have done, or it will risk being caught in the middle and facing the chaos and huge death tolls suffered in Spain and Italy.

“In Singapore they chose to do mass testing, and placed those who tested positive into isolation … But Italy didn’t implement any model and, like us, their situation has become a mess. Spain’s the same,” Ünal said. “But they explain it candidly. Where mistakes are made, they candidly admit them and try to find a solution. Here, our first problem is that we haven’t established a model of crisis management.”

Turkey’s second problem was the lack of protective equipment for doctors, which has left health workers dealing with coronavirus patients in some cases without the protection of medical masks and gloves, she said, adding that this raised the risks that family doctors who treated people with the coronavirus could then pass it on to other patients. 

“It’s bad if you don’t give the protective equipment from the start. We’ve been looking at suspected coronavirus cases for a week, but the equipment came later,” she said.

Other dangerous oversights in the management of the coronavirus crisis include some lax decisions on quarantines that have allowed people exposed to the virus to roam free and potentially affect many more, Ünal said. 

“In Beypazarı district in Ankara, there were 600 workers on a building site, and they placed 300 of them under quarantine. The other 300 were nowhere to be found. They may have been working without insurance,” she said.

“They ought to set up a triage room,” Ünal continued, adding that this would allow doctors to run a system where they put patients through basic tests for coronavirus symptoms and then transport them to hospitals if they showed signs of the virus.

Since hospital workers are at the highest risk of catching COVID-19, some doctors have reported colleagues quitting to put themselves out of harm’s way. But the vast majority have continued working despite the risks, said Dr. Reşat Bahat, the head of the Private Hospitals and Healthcare Organisations.

Yet many of those doctors and nurses have not been provided with all of the protective gear they need, said Dr. Ahmet Özdemir, and except for the medical masks have had to find their own equipment. 

And, with health workers keeping a close eye on the number of beds, patients with the virus who are doing well are often asked to stay at home, where their condition is tracked, leaving beds in hospitals for people in critical condition. As the pandemic continues, the hospitals are likely to become more crowded, Özdemir said, adding that he expects there to be a shortage of beds before long.