Is Istanbul ready for the coronavirus surge?

People who get COVID-19 are forced to use their annual leave or stay home without pay. This is why some people with positive tests and few or no symptoms are continuing with their daily routines. Since the details of the COVID-19 case data are kept secret, even scientists who want to conduct studies are rejected.

The short answer is: Nobody knows. 

What we do know is that even official data confirm that the outbreak is spreading dramatically in Turkey and especially in Istanbul. 

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca stated that 40 percent of all cases were reported in Istanbul, and thirty-nine districts have seen more than a 50 percent increase in COVID-19 infections in the past week. 

Koca gave percentages, not numbers. And when it comes to numbers, nobody, not even health specialists know for sure — the only clear information about Istanbul’s current status is the map showing where infections are on the rise. In general, many districts are almost all red, while the rare blue areas with lower levels are usually in affluent neighborhoods, or where the population density is much lower. But again, they don’t reflect numbers, only percentages.

Associate Professor Osman Elbek points to the fact that the map shows the class divide: the division is between those who can’t afford to stay at home, as the Health Ministry suggests to the public daily, and those who can work at home or don’t have to work. 

Take into account as well that in poorer neighborhoods, large families all live in the same apartment. How can you isolate a case at home?

Then there is the huge question about people who are positive with few or no symptoms who are told to stay home. Istanbul governor Ali Yerlikaya admitted that Istanbulites are going to work even if they tested positive: “They are afraid of COVID-19, but they are more afraid of getting sacked.”

Note that workers who contract COVID-19 can’t get a medical report to excuse them from work with pay. Usually, people who get COVID-19 are forced to use their annual leave or stay home without pay. This is why some people with positive tests and few or no symptoms are continuing with their daily routines.

Professor of public health Kayıhan Pala, who was targeted for being critical of government health policies, wrote an article for Birgün on Sunday. Professor Pala believes that the official numbers (360,000 cases) only reflect the tip of the iceberg. He estimates that more than one million cases are confirmed. 

“I make my estimation based on the Ministry of Health’s positive case percentages released in April and September, on various city medical chambers’ figures, on Turkish Physicians Association’s (TTB) studies with family physicians, and on my colleagues’ and my own observations. In the past weeks, the number of cases made public reflect only a fifth of the total cases confirmed. The Ministry seems only to make its statements based on patients with severe and mild conditions.”

Interesting to note that the WHO is still taking the data (patients, not cases) from the government as “confirmed cases in Turkey.”

Professor Pala also remarked that so far, 13 million tests in total have been conducted, but how many people they were given to remains unclear. The Health Ministry has declined to share information with independent physicians. 

Some pieces of information about the tests are disturbing: President Erdoğan’s spokesperson, İbrahim Kalın, said on a TV show that the president’s team who are in close contact with him are tested twice each day. Also, it is mandatory for AKP members to be tested before each meeting at the party or the Presidency. It was in the news that one AKP MP, Hacı Bayram Türkoğlu, has been tested 45 times. 

It is understandable that politicians are tested frequently, but the question is whether these tests are included on the daily published data of the total tests. Since health workers on the frontline are not tested regularly, this is unacceptable. So many doctors, nurses, and caregivers have died because of insufficient measures. Now, the state “forbids” their right to resign and retire. 

Since the details of the COVID-19 case data are kept secret, even scientists who want to conduct studies are rejected. In fact, scientists have to get a permit from the evaluation council at the Health Services General Directorate in order to conduct any proposed studies. So far, no independent clinical study from Turkey has been published. 

This problem of obscuring data represents a huge setback. While the government’s COVID-19 slogan is “We are enough for us,” this seems to be applying for only the privileged, not the public. 

So how can we even begin to talk about fighting the virus when there is no transparency? How can Istanbulites be content when the Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu was not even invited to a critical COVID-19 meeting held in Istanbul?

The only debate at hand is when and what kind of preventative measures will be applied. New lockdowns on weekends, restrictions for the elderly and school children, and harsher, uneven measures are expected. While the crumbling economy makes it impossible to restrict workplaces and work hours, people will be asked to take their own responsibility for these matters. 

And if you want to know what’s going on, you either rely on a friend who is a health worker, or on hysterical Whatsapp groups.

If you are lucky, you’ll live. If not, you might even not be counted in the statistics. Who knows? Who cares? 

April 09, 2021 Istanbul is on sale