Emrah Altındiş, an Assistant Professor at Boston College and an adjunct faculty at Harvard Medical School, warns that a “tsunami” is headed towards Turkey. Altındiş said the virus is rarely detectable, which it makes it highly contagious and that Turkey was not taking the necessary precautions to slow its spread. Here is what Mr. Altındiş told me in a telephone interview.
Question: On March 16, you said the coronavirus wasn’t going away to vanish anything soon and that a “tsunami” was headed to our country. What exactly are we facing?
Emrah Altındiş: This is the largest outbreak the world has faced since the Spanish flu of 1918. The virus is sly in that its fatality is low. For 80 percent of infected people, the virus doesn’t cause heavy symptoms which allows those individuals to infect others without even knowing it. That 80 percent constitutes a great threat to the groups at risk.
Risk groups are persons aged 60 and above, individuals with heart diseases, hypertension or diabetes, cancer patients and anyone who’s immunocompromised. Obviously there are things everyone can do to boost their immune system: Eating well, getting eight hours of sleep, exercising and avoiding stress.
Yet, there’s only so much individuals can do. How could someone who works to put food on their family’s table just decide to not go to in? How could someone who barely got by on the minimum wage before the coronavirus suddenly start eating well? A huge part of the burden will fall on the government and municipalities.
Question: There’s some suspicion in Turkey surrounding the numbers because of the administration’s odd attitude about this. Supporters of the ruling party targeted the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) because it scrutinized the official figures. It is likely that the number of infected cases is much higher than what is currently revealed?
Emrah Altındiş: The Turkish Medical Association is one of the most reliable institutions in the country. They are the ones we should be trusting at the moment. It does indeed appear that some numbers are being concealed.
The government is propagating a narrative of “we’re managing the crisis really well” at the moment. Up until recently, the Health Minister boasted about how Turkey had no cases of the coronavirus. They realize the severe economic and political implications this will have and they’re paving the way to be able to be able to say they did everything they could once the pandemic is over.
Well, are they doing everything they can? I don’t think so. They should be conducting a huge number of tests and throw a large net to detect cases.
South Korea carried out 20,000 tests daily. The estimated number of all tests Turkey conducted since the outbreak of the pandemic is around that number.
Question: Why is that number so low?
Emrah Altındiş: There is a major supply deficit. Turkey needs to start manufacturing test kits right away. All countries need them right now, so no one is willing to export them.
We need to start manufacturing kits and conducting tests all over Turkey. We are very, very late on aggressive testing. It’s also wrong that the locations of the infected persons are not revealed and that those cities are not on lockdown.
Yet any criticism or suggestion to the Health Ministry at the moment is perceived as targeting the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Take the suggestion that mosques be closed to congregations. That was met with extreme protests. Well eventually, way too late, the Ministry of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) ruled in favor of this.
On the one hand, you have a matter of life and death, and on the other, a group of populist world leaders who prioritize the economy and business.
Question: What’s the progress on the vaccine?
Emrah Altındiş: Trials have begun, but that doesn’t mean that the vaccine will coming out on markets right away. If it’s patented, then the production will be in the hands of a few corporations. But the world’s complete capacity for production of the vaccine is limited, after all, very complex conditions need to be met for the production of the vaccine. So even when the vaccine is found, it will take a long time for it to reach your average person in Ankara.
Question: So this is going to take a while and no vaccine is around the corner to save the day. Meanwhile, everyone is self-isolating but if the outbreak won’t be over soon, how sustainable is this?
Emrah Altındiş: Each of us have the potential to contaminate more than a thousand people. So we really do need to stay at home. However, this is where the government needs to step in to ensure that workers who can’t go into work get paid. The Turkish government needs to make sure that low-income families eat well and strengthen their immune system. They need to make electricity, water and gas free for a few months. They especially need to look out for workers who are older than 60.
It’s pointless for some people to self isolate when thousands of others cram into factories every day. Turkey’s headed in the direction of Italy.
The public will be shocked with the number of people dying in the coming days. One, three, four, ten, thirty, a hundred… Unfortunately, this is natural but it’s in the hands of the government to decrease the death toll.
They need to take precautions in prisons, they need to send vulnerable inmates over 60 home. Those people’s lives are the responsibility of the government. If they die, that’ll be on the hands of the Justice Ministry and the Health Ministry.
There’s panic among health workers right now because they don’t have enough protective gear.
I’m going to be repeating myself here but there’s a tsunami headed towards our cities right now. If we can’t protect our healthcare workers right now, nothing can protect us when the tsunami strikes.
Question: What did you think about the relief package that President Erdogan announced on March 18? What did it tell you about Turkey’s battle against the virus?
Emrah Altındiş: His plan didn’t include the intense testing or quarantining of dense areas, it didn’t include any information about preparations to sustain a lockdown if it’s required.
It didn’t include any information about what Turkey is doing to prevent the wave that is about to crash into our healthcare system.
Finally, it lacked information about how they would sustain millions of workers, blue collars, service employees and minimum-wage workers.
I have to say with great sadness that I fear for our individuals under risk as this plan completely dismisses the recommendations of the World Health Organization.