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Despite hero worship, Turkey's doctors continue to face threats, violence

Doctors and medical associations worry Turkey's new law that includes heavier penalties for physical and verbal attacks against health care workers may do little to change the situation on the ground.

Many of Turkey’s doctors and health care workers left their shifts at noon on April 17 to stand together — albeit a meter apart, as necessitated by the rules of social distancing — in recognition of the approximately 100,000 doctors verbally and physically assaulted while doing their job in the last 10 years.

Organized by the vocal — and anti-governmental — Turkish Medical Association (TTB), the demonstration comes in the wake of a new law that slaps heavy penalties on those who assault health care workers. Taken amidst the fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic that claims more than a hundred lives every day in Turkey, the law will punish physical attacks on health care workers with 1.5 to 4.5 years in prison without parole. Threats or insults against health care officials carry a maximum punishment of three years.

April 17 marks the death of a young doctor, Ersin Arslan, who was stabbed to death in the southeastern city of Gaziantep in 2012 by the 17-year-old grandson of an 80-year-old patient who died at the hospital. Arslan was hardly an isolated case. A report prepared by the main opposition Republican People’s Party last December says that a Health Ministry hotline to report physical and verbal violence against health professionals received at least 40 complaints daily between 2012 and 2019. The report read that nine doctors had been killed on duty between 2005 and 2019.

The recent law covers doctors and other health care professionals including pharmacists, who for the last two weeks have faced threats and attacks from people angered by the unavailability of protective masks. “Some people have attacked the pharmacists to take the mask off their faces,” Erdogan Colak, the chairman of the pharmacists union, complained to the local media.

Under the COVID-19 precautions taken by the Turkish government, masks can no longer be obtained without requesting one from government online and receiving a code. With this code, Turks can pick up their masks free of charge from a pharmacy or have it delivered at home. Since last week, people who do not have masks have been unable to enter markets to shop for food.

The law and its tougher penalties, initiated by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally Nationalist Movement Party, passed in the early hours of April 15, with consensus from all political parties. Turkey’s Health Minister Fahrettin Koca — a doctor and hospital administrator — immediately tweeted his thanks to all those who have supported the new law that now doubles penalties for attacks against workers in the health sector.

“Although the law falls short of what we would have wanted, we still consider it a step in the right direction,” the Turkish Medical Association said in a statement the same day. It added that the association has been pushing for a law to protect health care professionals from violence since 2007. Ironically, the proposals were mostly blocked by the AKP, which has held a parliamentary majority since 2002.

The tone of the statement made it clear that the association would not be burying the hatchet with the AKP government just yet — particularly as its members fought the pandemic under high risk with less than adequate equipment. About 10 health care workers have died since the start of the pandemic, including the first Turkish doctor to diagnose the novel coronavirus infection in Turkey, Dr. Cemil Tasciogu.

“As we fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, we still hear that there are attacks against doctors and other health personnel,” the statement said. These attacks “will not be prevented by increased sentences on paper; it is a structural problem.” 

The TTB has repeatedly said that tensions between the doctors and patients largely stem from the government’s health policies, which urge the doctors in public and private hospitals to see too many patients a day. Many doctors complain that they can only see a patient for five minutes. “This is hardly adequate time to ask about symptoms, let alone make a diagnosis,” complained a family doctor in the Aegean port city of Izmir.

Many doctors also blame politicians, from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan down, who wave off doctors’ complaints about their work conditions as “self-serving,” "unpatriotic" and simply “greedy.” In one internationally famous case, a doctor who posted a meme to Facebook comparing the president to Gollum, the power-hungry "Lord of the Rings" character, was not only sued but immediately removed from duty.

So when Erdogan stood on the balcony of the presidential palace on March 20 and applauded the doctors and health personnel along with the public, very few health care professionals felt flattered or grateful.

“Who wants his applause?” a doctor and former administrator of a university hospital commented to Al-Monitor under condition of strict anonymity. “For the last 18 years of AKP rule, doctors and the health personnel have been on the receiving end of pointless restrictions, ever increasing income tax and direct insults and wrath from Erdogan that made it easy for unsatisfied patients or their families to attack doctors. Few of the attackers were ever put behind bars, and those who were will get out with the recent amnesty.”

“Though Erdogan's rhetoric has softened toward the doctors and the health care workers during the pandemic, the policy of polarization — those who are against us and those who are with us — has not changed,” political science professor Aysen Uysal told Al-Monitor. “The medical associations or experts who have an independent voice are either excluded from policy-making or silenced.”

Many doctors who talked to Al-Monitor have refused to comment on the record, saying they had been explicitly warned not to speak publicly about the pandemic or the government's policies. Only last month, the chairs of TTB’s local branches in Van and Mardin were summoned by the police shortly after the association started releasing its own counts of people infected with the coronavirus, data the state was withholding.

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