Turkish doctors persecuted for criticising government coronavirus response

Physicians raising concerns about the deaths of 92 health workers during the outbreak have been labelled ‘as dangerous as corona’ by authorities

epa08670143 Turkish doctor wearing Personal Protective Eqiupment (PPE) attends a protest against the government in front of the Istanbul Faculty of Medicine, in Istanbul, Turkey, 15 September 2020. A group of doctors gather to draw attention to the deaths caused by Covid-19 and the increasing number of patients, and to give respect to the memory of the citizens and healthcare workers who died during the pandemic.  EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU
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Doctors questioning official data and government policy on Turkey’s coronavirus outbreak are facing a growing backlash, including threats of prosecution and a ban on their professional association.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, physicians have spoken out about the true number of cases and deaths as well as raising concerns over a lack of suitable protective equipment in hospitals and the government’s handling of the crisis.

Last week, they organised a nationwide campaign to highlight their worries, including the wearing of black ribbons to mark the deaths of 92 health workers during the outbreak.

This led Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the nationalist party allied to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, to call for the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) to be banned and its leading members to face prosecution.

“The Turkish Medical Association is inciting unfounded doubts and stains about human and public health in today’s sensitive period,” he tweeted last week. “For this reason, the Turkish Medical Association should be closed immediately and without delay. Judicial action should be taken against the directors.”

He added that the TTB’s ribbon campaign was a “poisonous and evil plot” and accused the association of being “as dangerous as corona”.

Although Mr Bahceli’s party is only the fourth largest in parliament, its 48 MPs give the government a majority. He has a record of voicing views that seem maverick but carry weight given his role in supporting Mr Erdogan.

Turkey has recorded more than 300,000 cases and nearly 7,500 deaths since March. The daily figures had slowed but following the easing of restrictions in June have steadily risen to around 1,700 cases and 60 deaths a day.

Medics have long insisted the official figures hide the true spread of coronavirus among Turkey’s population of 83 million.

In a report on the outbreak’s first five months, the TTB said the country was experiencing 10 times as many cases as officially reported.

Esin Senol, a professor at Gazi University’s Faculty of Medicine in Ankara, warned that the capital, which has taken over from Istanbul as the centre of the pandemic, had “become Wuhan” – a reference to the Chinese city where the virus first emerged.

“We see that the number of severe cases is increasing and accumulating,” she said. “The cases we have seen are the tip of the iceberg... We will see much worse ahead of us – this creates much greater concerns.”

Prof Senol warned that the “avalanche of cases” had led to rising infections among health workers, leading to staff shortages.

Such warnings, however, have proved unpopular with the authorities, with a number of medics facing legal action over their comments.

Ozgur Deniz Deger, co-chair of the Van-Hakkari medical chamber in Turkey’s south-east, was summoned by police in March over criticism of the failure to take early precautions. Two months later he was questioned again after he tweeted a question to the health minister about the number of infected health workers.

In both cases he was interrogated in relation to “creating panic and fear among the public”, an offence that carries a four-year prison sentence. Other health staff who have voiced concerns have faced the same charge, with some banned from travel and forced to report to police while prosecutors investigate their remarks.

However, Dr Deger, like other medics who have faced similar treatment, has remained unbowed by the risk of legal action.

“The health of the public and health workers is my priority,” he said. “I’m not going to be afraid to tell the truth. Let this be my badge.”

In response to the pressure on its members, the TTB has called on the government to embrace the input of the medical community.

“If there is to be a response to the assessments made by scientists based on their scientific knowledge, the way to do this is not to open a criminal investigation or threaten criminal action to suppress them,” it said in a statement. “Rather, it is to explain why these assessments are wrong with studies based on scientific method and evidence.”

Human Rights Watch has also called for an end to the investigations.

“The Turkish authorities criminally investigating medical chamber officials is not only an outrageous attack on free speech but impedes the fight against the deadly Covid-19 pandemic and obstructs their legitimate work,” said Hugh Williamson, the group’s regional director.