During the Eid holiday (Bayram), Turkey’s popular beaches and seashores were teeming with people. The peninsula of Çeşme alone, located near Izmir, hosted up to 1 million people during the holiday weekend. According to Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, “the first wave hit the shores.”
However, family visits - which are a key part of the Eid holiday - led to a high mobilization throughout the country. People flocked from big cities to their hometowns and vice versa. Like in other parts of the world, people were reckless. Experts say the Turkish government’s confident communication regarding its management of the pandemic has also led to a relaxation in people’s habits.
This week, a surge in COVID-19 cases in towns in eastern and middle regions of Turkey (Diyarbakır, Urfa, Malatya, Konya, Van) as well as in Ankara was publicly disclosed. Statements from governors, mayors and physicians did not match the official data. In fact, there is an alarming gap between Ankara’s numbers and that of some hospitals.
As of Aug. 4, the Turkish Physicians Association (TTB) confirmed a total of 2,500 new cases in just the six cities mentioned above. The same day, the total number of new cases in Turkey (for 81 cities) was declared as 1,083. Aytun Çıray of the Good Party (İYİ) claimed that the real numbers were concealed and that the health system was on the brink of collapse.
On Tuesday, Minister Koca warned of a severe increase but refrained from commenting on critics.
A day later he was defensive, tweeting: “There is no hospital in any city which is overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. Those who make allegations should take precautions as if the hospitals were completely full. In that way they might benefit society.“
Koca also said that he had made teleconference calls with governors and health officials in 14 cities. Yet the Ministry of Health continues to ignore independent health associations and experts in the field. Istanbul Physicians Chamber Chair Prof. Pınar Saip said that the private hospitals were not admitting COVID-19 patients and that the hospitals that were recently built remained insufficient to treat patients.
While claims that the health system is about to collapse might be far-fetched, Koca himself concedes there is an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases. Every single expert, including Health Commission members, warn that the numbers will explode in the next few weeks, because of the high mobilization during Bayram.
There was already a surge in cases in towns, villages in Anatolia prior to Bayram. The Kurdish cities of Diyarbakır, Urfa, Batman and Van were especially struggling.
Two weeks ago, physicians from Diyarbakır told me that they didn’t have enough access to proper medical equipment to protect themselves, and that the hospitals had capacity issues.
Why is it that Kurdish cities with relative low populations are experiencing a surge in cases, regardless of the high mobilization that came with Bayram? Dr. Halis Yerlikaya and Dr. Halil İbrahim Mert, both of whom hail from Diyarbakır, pointed out that the government’s seizing of HDP municipalities and its appointment of trustees had had a negative impact on the management of the pandemic. The Kurdish language has been wiped out from the city, which is critical in communicating with the public.
The imprisoned co-mayors of Batman (Mehmet Demir) and Diyarbakır (Selçuk Mızraklı) are both physicians. Physicians believe that the mayors the electorate had chosen would have better communicated with the public and that the pandemic could have been managed more effectively.
Another crucial question is whether or not the schools will reopen on Aug. 31, as the Ministry of Education suggested they would. Health experts again warn this would come too early. CHP MP Yıldırım Kaya asked the Ministry of Education whether the schools are to be reopened so that private schools could receive their due fees. Kaya claims that the schools will be open only for a week before switching back to distance learning.
Many families have not paid the yearly fee for the next term due to uncertainties. Independent unions claim that the educational system mainly supports private schools, while the budget for state schools is low. Parents themselves have to pay for cleaning workers and, at times, teachers, since the Ministry’s budget is insufficient. How can children start school if even the basic hygienic means are not met?
It appears that Turkey will face mounting problems with regards to the management of the pandemic in the coming weeks. As the government seeks control the pandemic, to be able to boast about its success story, the reality is that its ever-increasing oppression and lack of transparency do not help.