Turkey has been rocked by a series of protests in recent weeks amid a plummeting national currency and continuing gender-based violence. Last week, another group took to the streets as part of the White March organized by the Turkish Medical Association (TMA). Health care workers marched from Istanbul to Ankara to draw attention to the harsh working conditions medical workers faced during the pandemic, including mobbing, long shifts, and economic hardships. The White March began on November 23 in Istanbul and reached its destination, the capital Ankara, on November 27.
Caught in the government's crosshairs
Founded in 1953, the Turkish Medical Association is an independent medical and health professional association. One of its top goals is to protect and promote public health in Turkey as well as physicians’ rights. Some 88 percent of the country's physicians are members of the group. Since the first reported case of COVID-19 on March 14, 2020, the TMA has been a vocal critic of the government's policies, particularly the daily data provided by the Ministry of Health. The TMA argued the real numbers were much higher than the data reported by the Ministry. Gathering data from its provincial offices, the TMA was the first to publish COVID-related data in Turkey, when the Ministry of Health would not.
The TMA stressed that there were about 10 times as many active patients in society as those diagnosed with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, and concluded that the government’s pandemic strategy was a failure.
Çağrım şudur: Türk Tabipler Birliği, bugünkü hassas dönemde, insan ve toplum sağlığı hakkında asılsız şaibe ve şüpheleri körüklemektedir. Bu nedenle sadece adında Türk bulunan Tabipler Birliği derhal ve gecikmeksizin kapatılmalıdır. Yöneticileriyle ilgili adli işlem yapılmalıdır.
— Devlet Bahçeli (@dbdevletbahceli) September 16, 2020
I call for this: The Turkish Medical Association is fueling unfounded doubts and suspicions about human and public health during these sensitive times. For this reason, the Medical Association, with ‘Turkish’ only in its title, should be shut down immediately and without delay. Legal action should be taken against its leadership.
Bahceli implied the association was working against Turkey's interests. His sentiments echoed those of President Erdoğan, who said in October 2020, “we should immediately take away privileges from those who do not deserve to have Turkish in the titles,” speaking at his party's meeting at the parliament. The president made similar remarks in 2018, suggesting they should remove the word “Turkish” from the medical association's name because it opposed Turkish military involvement in Syria.
The reality on the ground
Back at the White March, association members were determined to raise awareness of the challenges that medical staff face. They noted that the pandemic has driven many medical professionals to the brink as they continue to receive low salaries in the face of a sinking national currency, heightened hours and stress due to the pandemic, and increased instances of violence against healthcare workers.
In an interview with Balkan Insight, Vedat Bulut, a professor of medicine and board member of the association said, the number of cases where medical workers face violence continues to grow. As a result, “medical doctors are resigning for better jobs in the private sector and also jobs abroad. We told the Turkish Ministry of Health that incentives and better policies should be implemented to halt the trend, but nothing has been done,” said Bulut. Every month, the Union of Healthcare and Social Service Workers (Sağlık-Sen) publish a report of monthly cases of violence. According to its October report, at least 19 health care workers were subject to violence that month. But the overall number of doctors physically and verbally assaulted in the last eleven years is well over 100,000.
Another point raised during the White March was about a recent Ministry of Health decision that reduces medical examination time to five minutes at family health clinics and public hospitals. “This will lead to more doctors resigning or moving abroad as well as more health issues, diseases and violence within the healthcare sector,” the doctors who took part in a protest organized by the Medical Association in October 2021, said according to Gazete Duvar reporting.
On November 26, as the White March reached the province of Bursa, the Bursa Medical Chamber Chair Alpaslan Turkkan said, “We want our weekly working hours to be rearranged and reduced; we want safe and healthy working environments in the face of violence and diseases; we want COVID-19 to be recognized as an occupational disease; as a patient cannot be examined in five minutes, we want this imposition to be abandoned; we want wages that we deserve, that affect our pensions and ensure a humane life.”
— TürkTabipleriBirliği (@ttborgtr) November 27, 2021
Live. Our White March is in Ankara.
On November 27, after arriving in Ankara, the march participants reiterated their demands. The Ministry of Health has yet to respond.