On a rainy day in Istanbul, people queue in front of Bakırköy Sadi Konuk Research and Training Hospital to get tested for Covid-19. Only the sound of sirens breaks the eerie silence. Ambulance vehicles are parked outside the hospital, ready to respond to emergency calls. When a parked car catches fire and paramedics start spraying it with fire extinguisher, it at least provides a distraction for those waiting in front of the hospital.
By April 20, confirmed cases in Turkey rose to more than 90,000, making it the seventh-most affected country in the world. There have been more than 2,000 deaths.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has introduced measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, asking people to stay at home and imposing a curfew on those over 65 and under 20. He warned that a fresh lockdown was imminent, having already locked down 31 provinces in mid-April.
Ersin, 28, has worked for nine years as a paramedic in the province of Bolu in north-western Turkey. He and his wife are currently staying at a public residence for teachers, provided by the government during the coronavirus outbreak.
“My wife is a nurse. We’re lucky that we don’t have children and after our shift we can go straight to our room and isolate ourselves,” Ersin said.
He added that, as the number of infected in Turkey grows, more personal protective equipment is needed, which is not always available. This scarcity was something health workers were reluctant to talk about, Ersin continued, adding, “They are worried that they might lose their jobs or be harassed if they report on problems at the hospitals.”
Turkey, a country of 83 million people, has nearly 900,000 health workers, most of whom are working to contain the spread of the virus and help those infected. Many find this task very challenging.
65-year-old Cumali, a caregiver at the Çukurova University Hospital in the southern province of Adana, said that his mental health was suffering as a result of the stress at work.
“We didn’t receive any training about Covid-19, we weren’t properly informed about how the infection spreads,” he explained. “We were afraid the whole time we distributed food to Covid-19 patients. We didn’t even know how to interact with them. We learn as we go.”
Reyhan, a 48-year-old cleaning worker in Ankara, is worried that he might contract coronavirus while at work.
“We have a heavier workload now, but we don’t have enough equipment,” he said. “Anyone who doesn’t want to work under these conditions is risking receiving an official warning or having a bad record.”
Reyhan argued that too much discussion in Turkey was focused on possible treatment for Covid-19, while the emphasis should be on prevention.
“If you can’t prevent the infection and protect health workers with personal protective equipment, then none of your hospitals will be safe,” he concluded.
Hygiene is a critical front in the battle against the pandemic. The Istanbul Municipality (IBB) has been dispatching units to disinfect public transportation and stations both during the day and the night. According to IBB spokesperson, Murat Ongun, some 350 municipal employees have tested positive for Covid-19. Around 2,000 are currently under quarantine, while three have died.
Ferhat Aykut, 27, is as a cleaning and disinfection worker with the Istanbul municipality.
“We work eight hours a day, and we clean as many stations as we can during that time,” he said, pausing for a moment to look at a billboard reading, “We will succeed together.”
Ilhan Yiğit, administrator at the Confederation of Public Employees Trade Unions (KESK), said that despite the risks, many public employees were still working. This included those in tax and legal offices as well as in the energy industry.
“Public employees aren’t tested enough,” Yiğit continued, adding that postal workers faced particular risk.
“A worker tested positive in a Turkish Post branch in [the Istanbul district] Esenyurt, where 150 people worked. Thirty people were tested, and 20 of them were positive,” he said.
Yiğit added that KESK was preparing a report on issues faced by public workers during the Covid-19 outbreak, but had struggled to access data in the current political climate.
“If the government fails to provide safety measures, public employees should have the right to refuse to work,” Yiğit noted. “But the government isn’t taking this seriously.”
In Eminönü, now one of Istanbul’s quietest neighborhoods, a flock of pigeons gathered in front of the mosque around a municipal worker carrying bird feed and water.
“Since there are no tourists who feed them, these birds migrated here from the Sultanahmet district [the centre of old Istanbul]. They are hungry,” he said.
Kadıköy is one of the many Istanbul municipalities which provide hot meals daily for the elderly and for people living in deprived neighbourhoods. The municipality recently opened a second kitchen here to meet the demand.
Yüksel Yıldız, 41, is a cook at one of the two municipal kitchens which prepare around 2,000 hot meals a day. Married with three children, he said he had no choice but to continue working.
“I have to work, or someone else will take my job. I have a family to look after,” he said. “Besides, we’re young. Seniors and those who can’t go to work need us now.”
Yıldız says that his nine-year-old son Erdem opened the door every night when he returned from work and forced him to wash immediately.
“He won’t let me in without a shower,” Yıldız said. “The outbreak has really made an impact on children.”