Turkey at second peak of first COVID-19 wave, senior medical official says

The recent spike in daily coronavirus cases, which has remained above 1,000 since the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, indicates that Turkey is experiencing the second peak of its first COVID-19 wave, Turkish Medical Association (TTB) Chairman Sinan Adıyaman told Ahval.

“The first wave has not faded, unfortunately, the outbreak continues rapidly,” Adıyaman said. “The second peak of the first wave is slowly beginning.”

Turkey has consistently seen daily COVID-19 case numbers above 900 since mid-July. The tally has been above 1,100 and rising since Aug. 3, although daily deaths from the disease have remained relatively low. A total of 1,243 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 on Thursday, while 21 people lost their lives.

There were 11,666 active cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the country as of Thursday evening, according to Health Minister Fahrettin Koca’s daily Twitter briefing.

“We are really in the second peak of the disease in Turkey. For us to say that the epidemic is under control, the transmission rate must be below one. Before June, it was,” Adıyaman said. “Now it is about 1.3.”

There are provinces with higher transmission rates, up to 1.7.

Turkey has been hit hard by the pandemic, with more than 245,000 people infected and 5,912 deaths attributed to the coronavirus to date.

Figures have worsened since the strict lockdowns and other restrictions on travel and work were relaxed on June 1, seeing a particular spike in the weeks following Eid, and the opening ceremony of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia on July 24 where tens of thousands of people gathered to pray.

However, Turkey is grappling with a far bigger calamity from the coronavirus than official figures and statements might suggest, Adıyaman said, citing data compiled by doctors on the ground.

The TTB has chapters in 65 provinces, Adıyaman said, who provide the headquarters with as much data as possible. “Looking at that information, we came to the conclusion that the data released by the Ministry of Health every night and the information we receive were inconsistent.”

At least 300 houses have been placed under quarantine in the southeastern border province of Şanlurfa recently, he said, adding that there are around 500 new COVID-19 cases per day in the city. 

Meanwhile, doctors in the province report a shortfall in intensive care unit beds and an increase in the number of healthcare professionals testing positive for the coronavirus.

“About 400 healthcare professionals have contracted the virus,” Adıyaman said.

The TTB has been calling for regular testing for medical professionals and administrative hospital staff, but the Health Ministry has not made it available. Fifty-two healthcare workers, including 26 doctors, have lost their lives to the coronavirus, which should be considered an occupational hazard, according to the TTB. In such a case, the families left behind would be entitled to compensation and pension payments.

Şanlıurfa is a province along the Syrian border that has large Kurdish and Arab populations, with significant numbers of refugees in the mix. Many of the province’s poorer residents leave to take on seasonal agricultural work in other parts of the country every year, and this year, their return could signal a downturn, the TTB chair said.

“The Health Minister had called Istanbul ‘Turkey’s Wuhan’, so the second Wuhan would be Urfa,” he added.

Turkey’s biggest Kurdish-majority province, Diyarbakır, has been registering 300 to 350 new cases every day, while the border province of Gaziantep, home to more Syrian refugees than locals in certain districts, sees “an average of 400 patients a day, and a very serious increase in the number of patients,” according to Adıyaman.

A large-scale hospital in capital Ankara, designated the main pandemic hospital, is almost full, and occasionally ends up having to keep patients waiting in other services for a vacancy, he said, adding that COVID-19 clinics in several university hospitals had been closed, but were opened again due to the rise in numbers.

“These numbers I’m telling you are people confirmed to have the virus via a PCR test,” Adıyaman said. “The test’s accuracy rate is 60 to 70 percent, this is the same around the world.”

Clinically diagnosed patients are not counted in the figures, even if they lose their lives, he added.

Adıyaman said many restrictions were lifted by the government prematurely before the COVID-19 outbreak was fully under control - mainly due to economic and political concerns. 

At least 3.5 million workers were furloughed, and another 1.8 million were sent to unpaid leave, according to reports by workers’ unions confederation DİSK. The report also found that, when calculated in accordance with International Labour Organisation (ILO) standards, Turkey’s active workforce has reduced by 8.6 million people since the pandemic first took hold in March. Another DİSK report showed that close to one in two women in Turkey lost their jobs.

Polls show dropping support for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, and half of the population thinks the pandemic was not handled well.