Coronavirus: Turkish pharmacist defies government to help those in need

Politician Gamze Tascier gives out face masks from her pharmacy and pays for food purchases of those in need, despite a government crackdown on unsanctioned aid

Despite risking the government's wrath, pharmacist and politician Gamze Tascier has been using her access to medical supplies to help the less fortunate in Turkey's capital.

As well as owning a pharmacy in Ankara’s poverty-stricken eastern district Mamak, Ms Tascier is a deputy for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

While she gave up her day-to-day work as a pharmacist when she was elected to parliament in 2019, she still oversees operations and says she has so far given out about 1,000 masks to people as part of efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus.

"Pharmacists know everyone because they are the health advisers of their neighborhoods, they have good and close relationships with people," Ms Tascier told The National.

“I distribute masks to those who need them in the neighbourhood, where I have owned a pharmacy for years.”

Turkey has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the region and the eighth highest in the world at over 130,000, but has a relatively low number of recorded deaths at about 3,600.

Yet the distribution of face masks, as well relief efforts, have become the topic of political debate.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) have moved to prevent efforts by the CHP and other opposition groups to help hundreds of thousands of people in need. Mayors have had charitable bank accounts frozen, they face criminal investigations and accusations of separatism over their response to the pandemic.

Many believe the crackdown has been driven by fears that the AKP could lose votes at the next election following significant losses in local elections last year, most notably in Ankara and Istanbul.

Mr Erdogan argues that combating the virus requires a centralised and planned effort “with strong co-ordination” and that opposition efforts are an attempt to “show off”.

The sale of face masks was also banned as the government planned to distribute them to citizens free of charge. However, the plan failed to work as many were unable to receive the SMS codes needed to receive their disposable surgical masks from pharmacies.

The government now plans to replace the ban with a price cap of one Turkish lira (Dh0.50) per mask.

“There were unprecedented crowds in pharmacies after the ruling party decided to distribute free masks,” said Ms Tascier.

“Most people did not receive the code they needed, so they tried their luck in desperation and the crowds risked even the pharmacists getting sick.”

Ms Tascier said some pharmacists had already died from Covid-19 and a pharmacist friend has tested positive. One of the people she helped has also died of the disease.

Yet people have been very grateful to her and her colleagues for their efforts to help them, so they continue.

“People's reaction has been positive. The culture in Turkey is that neighbours help each other and I am happy to be able to help people I have had good relationship with for years at this difficult time,” she said.

“I also deliver boxes of masks to people the CHP’s district organisations say need help. So I have been able to reach as many people as possible in many districts in Ankara.”

And it is not only mask donation she is involved in. When Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas, who also represents the CHP, appealed for people to take up the tradition of paying off the debts of the less fortunate at their local food shops as a means to evade government relief restrictions, Ms Tascier did not hesitate.

“There are notebooks in small grocery stores that we call ‘veresiye defteri’ [credit books]. People in the neighbourhood know each other and some take their needs from the grocery shop and write down their debts to pay when they receive their salaries,” she said.

“Due to the pandemic, a large number of people have lost their jobs and their debts have accumulated. I went to grocery shops in various neighbourhoods to pay debts, and have helped as much as I can with food packages, delivered by our municipality to the citizens in need."

Ms Tascier believes that now, more than ever, supporting others is important and she will continue to do what she can for others.

"Unfortunately, the AKP puts great pressure on CHP municipalities, even while we are dealing with coronavirus. It is not possible to understand this enmity policy in such a difficult time,” she said.

“In these days, helping has become so important. I hope a vaccine will be available as soon as possible so we, and the rest of the world, can return to normal.”