40-hour shifts and a loaf of bread: Turkish doctors hit hard economically amid pandemic

Turkish doctors and healthcare workers on the front lines fighting against the COVID-19 pandemic are not getting the additional pay they were promised, but many are keeping quiet due to fear of reprisal from the government and superiors, according to union leaders.

K. Murat Yıldız / Duvar English

Many organizations and media outlets around the world have announced healthcare workers and doctors as “Persons of the Year." Similarly, Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, have continuously praised the efforts of healthcare workers and doctors fighting the pandemic, referring to them as the "health army."

“We have an enormous health army,” President Erdoğan said in a statement during the early stages of the pandemic. However, that army, whose duty is to save lives under difficult pandemic conditions, also suffered heavy losses and received only lip service from the government during the pandemic. They were not even provided sufficient protective equipment such as masks. Furthermore, according to a statement by the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) on Jan. 9, the economic conditions of healthcare workers has deteriorated during the pandemic.

Despite public praise from the president and the health minister, doctors and healthcare workers have pointed out that even their basic needs, such as nutritious meals, were not taken care of.

“We don’t eat at the hospitals because the food service at hospitals has been privatized to pro-government companies who deliver very low-quality food. We have colleagues who have even gotten sick from it. Dietitians at our hospital have told us not to consume the food.”

Confirming the extremely low quality of meals, many healthcare workers and doctors took to social media. “We work 40 hours sometimes and they give us just a loaf of bread with a piece of cheese. We bring food from home or skip the meals with some biscuits from the canteen,” one doctor noted.

“Other than us, there is the staff such as cleaning personnel and security workers most of whom work for minimum wage. They are suffering, but they have no other option. ey are hurting even more than us, as they are in contact with patients as much as we are.”

'We bought our own protective masks'

“We experienced a serious mask shortage. We could not find any masks at the hospitals. The government could not pay mask producers. We bought our own masks at sometimes 3 times higher than the market value when there was a scarcity of masks during the early stages of the pandemic,” a doctor from a state university hospital in Istanbul told Duvar English.

The doctor noted that when COVID-19 services were opened at hospitals it was not clear who was going to run them. “It is an infectious disease, but infection experts said they couldn't deal with it on their own. So the job was distributed among all branches. I started to work with COVID-19 patients as early as March until today. I have already been infected by the virus 2 times.”

Hospitals run by politically connected people, not health professionals

“The officials who run our hospitals are not health experts. They are politically-motivated and well-connected individuals. Most of the hospital directors are not even doctors. Similarly, a large number of doctors with academic titles working in hospitals got those titles as a result of their political connections. They are ordered by authorities to calm people down. That is their primary duty.”

“I was infected for the first time in March. There are 30 doctors in our department. All of whom have been infected multiple times until now. Among my colleagues there are only 3 to 5 people who have not been infected,” said one doctor.

“I have 8 days of night shifts each month, which are about 36 hours each. We don’t get paid for the extra hours we spend on duty. There have been times where I spend 48 hours on duty, and I never get paid for it.”

Injustice in payments, bonuses, and salaries

“There is an injustice regarding payments. ‘COVID performance payments’ were promised at the beginning of the pandemic to all healthcare workers, but it was only given to some doctors. Those payments come months after the fact. This month you might get payment for September or October.”

“The government’s goal isn't to provide adequate health services in regards to the pandemic. They just want to show that they are doing something and get credit for saving the day,” the doctor added.

“We cannot use German, Swiss, or American medical equipment due to the exchange rates. We are forced to use lower quality Turkish equipment, which can delay patient recovery up to 50 percent.”

“They built many hospitals, but in terms of healthcare professionals, those buildings are empty. It is easy to build a hospital, but it is difficult to staff it with capable doctors, nurses, healthcare workers to provide quality medical care. They did not or could not do that. Sometimes we cannot even find the most basic equipment we need to do our job,” he concluded.

Deeply rooted problems

"We are not opportunists. We are not requesting anything extra due to the pandemic. It would be disgraceful for us to expect extra money. Our problems are deeply rooted. A nurse makes an average of 2,650 liras (360 USD) a month,” Zekiye Bacaksız, President of the General Health Union (Genel Sağlık İş), told Duvar English.

“From the cleaning lady to the top professor at any hospital it all requires teamwork, especially in extraordinary times like this. They all need to be equally protected, given appropriate working conditions, and paid.”

Government uses pandemic to silence dissent

Bacaksız also said that the government took advantage of the pandemic, saying, “They transfer our members under the guise of the pandemic emergency to other locations. The pandemic is used unethically and unlawfully as a way to punish those who oppose the government. Our members are now so afraid that when they submit their problems to us, they ask us to keep their identity anonymous. The pandemic is being used as a weapon to silence dissent.”

“Still today we are not provided with sufficient protective equipment especially in our family health centers. There are family health centers where only 3 healthcare personnel are working and they are allocated only 50 masks a month,” she concluded.

Healthcare workers and doctors suffer from burnout

“The government has not fulfilled any of the financial promises it made. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, authorities did not provide enough protective equipment to healthcare workers. Today, this problem continues in family health centers” Dr. Ali İhsan Ökten, deputy chairman of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) told Duvar English, confirming Bacaksız' statements.

“Working conditions are terrible. The number of doctors and healthcare workers we have lost due to the pandemic is very high. We are overstretched. The authorities do not protect us. We are suffering from burnout, but they do not care or listen,” he said.

“Five of my 8 assistants got the virus. More than half of my colleagues in the hospital I work at in emergency services got it too. We haven't seen any of the promised bonus payments from the government. Moreover, in some cases, the payments were ridiculous amounts such as 50 (6.7 USD) or 100 liras (13.5 USD). There are some who did not even get that amount.”

'They call us terrorists’

“The government does not cooperate with us or any other non-governmental health institution. We have made calls to them because we can only deal with the pandemic if we cooperate, but our calls went unanswered,” Dr. Ökten said.

“We have no political agenda. We just declare the facts. We aim to save lives using scientific data. Unfortunately, they call us ‘terrorists’ just for telling the truth.”