Everything happened after the physician associations disclosed the number of cases in their cities. The government, as usual, announced at the very end what everyone already knew. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on September 3, “At this moment, the province of Ankara has the highest number of cases in Turkey. It has passed Istanbul with double the number of cases.”
If Ankara of 5 million people has over twice the number of cases as Istanbul, it can be inferred that Ankara actually has three times as many cases as Istanbul. When we consider the population, Ankara has about nine times the density of Istanbul. The situation is bad.
There are two problems here. The first is that the health system in the country has collapsed and the epidemic has erupted. The second is that the capital of Ankara is now leading in this.
Now, it is being asked why it is being said that Ankara has become another Wuhan. When we look into the reasons for this, we see three main actors: the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the Health Minister and the municipalities. Of course, when municipalities are mentioned, it is the mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, who comes first to mind.
AK Party Palace
During this period, the office of the President has done two things: he has given construction jobs to contractors and advice to the public. We are seeing the consequences of the construction jobs he has distributed almost every day. It was only last week that in the Black Sea province of Giresun, he distributed free tea and advice when the city was struck by flash floods. He has exploited the health system to the benefit of his own team. An AK Party deputy stated that he was tested eight times for COVID-19 in one month. The staff of the Beştepe Presidential Palace is being tested every three days. These examples show where the burden on the health system in Ankara is coming from.
The fact that “he and his close circle” are fully benefiting from the entire health system must have had an impact in making Ankara worse than Istanbul.
The Health Minister
The Ministry of Health, and Health Minister Koca in particular, have now caused the health system in Ankara to collapse. I am sure you will recognize at least one of the six hospitals in Ankara that were closed before the pandemic and whose doors are being kept shut. They are Zekai Tahir Burak, Dışkapı Children’s Hospital, Atatürk Hospital, Yüksek İhtisas Hospital, Ankara Physical Therapy Hospital and Numune Hospital. The last one has been serving patients since 1881, but it is now closed. The total bed capacity of these hospitals is 3,415 but they are not currently in use.
These hospitals were closed so that the newly-built city hospitals could earn more money, and thus the health system has collapsed. The city hospitals have also collapsed. The entire complex of Ankara City Hospital has become an epidemic center and they have closed their doors to other illnesses. According to the information provided by doctors, the bed capacity, which was 3,700 initially, had to be increased to 6,000.
Do not close the hospitals, open them
We know that apart from the six hospitals the Health Ministry has closed for the benefit of the Ankara City Hospital, seven more hospitals are planned to be closed. In other words, the health system of Ankara, the quarter of Sıhhiye, which means medical in old Turkish, has also collapsed. As if that was not enough, during the pandemic, decisions have been made to fold the health systems in two other cities, the southern tourist hub Antalya and the Black Sea city Samsun. The bidding processing for building city hospitals in these two cities have been held recently with exaggerated prices. Journalist Çiğdem Toker wrote last week about the abuses within these construction bidding processes. The official name of the process is 21b, and Toker has analyzed Samsun and Antalya separately. The data shows that the health system has been robbed and has been presented as a form of profit to the contractor.
The only effort of the President during the pandemic seems to have been providing new businesses for contractors. The duty of the Health Ministry nowadays is to appoint city hospital jobs to contractors.
To add to the normalization of abuse, Ankara’s Mamak municipality sent 1453 people to Istanbul to attend the opening ceremony of the Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque. Add to this the two major holidays and annual leave period during which the virus was spread to Anatolia; then it multiplied and returned to Ankara. In this picture, Ankara is going through tough times.
Despite all this, the district municipalities and the metropolitan municipality in particular could have developed a policy of planning the entire process after listening to medical doctors and providing the standards required by the pandemic. In this framework, there are many things that could have been done, such as pedestrianizing spaces to help with physical distancing, making new arrangements for mass transportation, opening public fountains in squares for hand hygiene, restricting the sources of pollution to lower air pollution and creating food banks for basic nutrition. I wrote before about several models from around the world on what local governments can do. We even discussed the report cards of our municipalities — but these actions have not been taken yet.
The fact that the President and the Health Minister only work for the benefit of the contractors makes Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavaş’ efforts to fight the epidemic much more significant.
Let’s look at what Mansur Yavaş has done during this period. We can use the 325 agenda points in the August meeting of the Ankara Metropolitan Municipality and the 490 decisions reached by the city council between May and August in order to provide concrete and measurable information.
The Ankara municipality’s Ankara agenda
In the agenda of the Ankara city council for the month of August, there are six items related to COVID-19. However, all of them are reports. For instance, agenda item number 183 is the report prepared by the EU and Foreign Affairs Department on COVID-19 measures. There are three problems here. First is the question of why the measures taken were reported by the EU and the Foreign Affairs Department and not by the doctors? The second is why measures are being reported now that had been implemented since March 2020. The third one is not a report. It is made up of three small paragraphs and the conclusion is this: “Measures continue to be implemented with the aim of protecting citizens from the coronavirus (COVID-19), defined a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and preventing the epidemic from spreading.” Fantastic, isn’t it?
On one side, there are six COVID-19 agenda points that are all just for show; on the other side, there are nine items regarding decisions about asphalt. Moreover, there is a record number of zoning changes with exactly 141 agenda points, which breaks the record of the ex-mayor Melih Gökçek era.
The Ankara Metropolitan City Council met in August with an agenda that had zero pandemic policy items, six COVID-19 reports for show, nine decisions about concrete and 141 zoning changes.
Municipality decisions during the pandemic
Let us take a look at the decisions by the city council to cross-check this data. Since March 2020, the number of decisions by the Ankara city council that give any local data to serve in policy-making for COVID-19 is zero. The number of decisions that mention COVID-19 was zero in March and April, three in May, two in July and six in August. That’s it.
The question is what has the city council worked on during the pandemic.
Asphalt and concrete governance in the pandemic
Ankara is a city fed up with asphalt and concrete due to ex-mayor Melih Gökçek. The city is facing the pandemic after 25 years of Gökçek and the municipal mentality of the AK Party. Knowing this, Mansur Yavaş was elected after reiterating many times his promise “not to do asphalt and concrete municipal work.” In his first months, he always repeated this.
However, city council decisions reveal that during the pandemic, Mansur Yavaş has done only asphalt and concrete works in the city.
The Ankara Metropolitan Municipality approved 787 separate 1/1000 plans in 2017. But now, at the heart of the epidemic, in August 2020 alone, it had 141 zoning items on its agenda. This is a record that goes beyond the Gökçek era. Among the 10 decisions made between May and August, four of them were changes in development plans. The local government was not able to focus on anything else but zoning.
The situation is worse when it comes to asphalt. The municipality is undertaking a huge effort to pave asphalt in order to catch up with this much development. It has opened three new asphalt facilities to be able to produce enough asphalt. With two more facilities to be opened, Ankara will reach an asphalt capacity of 15,000 tons a day. With this amount, Yavaş will pave more asphalt than his predecessor.
During this pandemic, while the government worked for the benefit of contractors, the local Ankara government worked for their benefit as well. There was not even one policy document prepared in the municipality during the pandemic. In a city lacking adequate pedestrian pavements, not even one kilometer of pedestrianization was done. Not a single public fountain or even one food bank was opened. No public transportation arrangements were revealed. However, the municipality excelled at social media.
With this kind of a situation, Ankara is now suffocating in asphalt and concrete works to such an extent that people are longing for the Gökçek days. Ankara’s streets are occupied by earth-moving trucks and concrete mixers. While the temperature is reaching record highs, workers are forced to pave asphalt. Everything is done to increase air pollution.
The contractor’s capital
Today, Ankara is not Wuhan. Wuhan is a good example compared to our capital city. Today, Ankara is a construction site. It only works for the benefit of the contractor. There is a president in Ankara who transfers the country’s resources to contractors, a health minister who awards the health system to contractors and a municipal mentality that opens the development of the city to contractors.
Of course, Mansur Yavaş is not the only one responsible for this. Everybody who supports him unconditionally and with no criticism shares the responsibility. Those who do not monitor his policies are also responsible. The solution is simple: Ankara residents have to remind the city again that they do not want a municipal administration that works for contractors — alongside a presidential system that works for contractors, and a health policy that works for contractors.
They have to do this because the pandemic isn’t just asking us, it’s ordering us to do so.