Turkey’s official COVID-19 cases contradicting reality, doctors say

Turkey’s largest medical association and unaffiliated experts said the country’s actual number of COVID-19 cases is much higher than reported figures, Public Radio International’s The World reported on Thursday.

Figures released by Turkey’s Health Ministry have shown COVID-19 infections to be rising slowly but steadily, but only exceeding 1,400 a day for the first time since June 25 on Thursday. 

But reports from the Turkish Medical Association (TBB) paint a very different picture. 

“There have been more than 1,000 daily diagnoses in [the city of] Ankara, alone,” Osman Elbek, a member of the association’s medical body, told The World. “We say these contradicting numbers must be explained. But no explanation has been given to us.”

For example, the TBB’s branch in the eastern province of Malatya is reporting around 100 cases a day, Elbek said. But according to official government data, Malatya’s caseload is combined with six more provinces into a region that steadily reports fewer than 100 daily cases. 

Elbek also said that while only 1-2 percent of patients with the coronavirus in most countries end up in an intensive care unit (ICU), around 10 percent of Turkish COVID-19 patients need intensive care. 

He told The World that this means either the virus in Turkey has mutated to become more deadly, or milder cases are going unconfirmed. 

Turkey has decided to report only cases of COVID-19 that are confirmed with a PCR test, which goes against World Health Organization guidelines. Turkish public health officials have raised questions over the reliability of test results, where patients who present clinical symptoms of COVID-19 may not test positive.

One Turkish ICU doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The World said that even patients who test positive for COVID-19 and receive treatment may not make it into the official tally.

“If a patient dies of COVID-19, but their last test result is negative, we don’t write it in the report. Because we know it’s not going to be approved by public health officials, and they won’t be able to be buried,” the doctor said. “We’ve started to self-censor ourselves.”

Germany-based neuroscientist Çağhan Kızıl, who is not affiliated with the TBB, told The World that the consistency of Turkey’s daily case counts is a red flag, as numbers should be fluctuating.

“Every day is different in a pandemic,” he said. “Monday is a workday, on Sunday people are home. The Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque, people went there, and even after that, nothing changed.”

Kızıl said that either Turkey’s capacity to test and identify for COVID-19 is too limited to accurately measure the scale of the outbreak, or the numbers are fabricated. 

“If [the government is] hiding it, it means they know the actual numbers, and maybe they’re taking precautions,” he said. “But if the second case is true, that we can’t find these cases, it means it’s out of control.”