Public’s sensitivity ‘behind success in fight with virus’
A view from the capital of Turkish Cyprus, Lefkoşa. The country only had 108 cases with a death toll standing at four and rest of the positive cases have recovered, according to the officials.
Turkish Cyprus is one of the few countries in the world that beat the COVID-19 outbreak. The country has not had any new coronavirus cases for more than two months as a result of strict decisions and measures to stem the spread of the virus, which were strictly abided by the Turkish Cypriot community.
It seems isolation worked for the first time in favor of Turkish Cyprus, but the people want a better strategy before opening borders on July 1, according to the president of the Cyprus Turkish Medical Association, Dr. Özlem Gürkut.
Tell us how Turkish Cyprus handled the pandemic.
When the coronavirus started to spread from China to other countries in the Far East, we started to provide information to the public as KTTB [Cyprus Turkish Medical Association]. On Jan. 24, we asked for a meeting and got together with the Health Ministry and told them we needed to get prepared. Initially, the ministry did not perceive it as a serious danger.
The first case was diagnosed on March 10 in a German tourist who had come a few days earlier. The hotel and that tourist group were taken into quarantine. We provided the government with a long list of guidelines on what measures to take, at which stage and in which circumstances.
We did not see a tendency in the government to take serious measures despite the diagnosis of a few more cases. We have four main state hospitals, and one of our main hospitals had suffered a fire before the outbreak, so we were worried that unless we took serious measures, we could not handle increasing numbers of cases once the virus started to spread.
I believe thanks to our pressure, the cabinet [which convened on March 13] took some radical decisions, like closing schools and workplaces. In due course, a curfew was imposed [from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.].
What happened afterwards? What were compliance levels like?
We still experienced some problems; we did not have enough test kits or enough equipment like computerized tomography. But with several NGOs and support from the public, we started to provide for these needs. As a result, we have had [only] 108 cases so far: 77 are local citizens; the rest were from the German tourist group. We discharged our last case at the end of April. As no further case had been diagnosed by May 4, there was a decision to lift the measures.
This was contested because the World Health Organization (WHO) favored a phased approach. The government assumed that we had created a “sterilized” society, and although borders remained closed, it took a rather risky decision. People could go out but schools, restaurants and entertainment places remained closed.
Would you say that the first stage was a success? And if so, what were the fundamental reasons behind this success?
Yes, there has been some success and the fundamental factor was to take measures very early and in a radical way. The second was the public’s behavior. People abided by the measures. That was also because we kept informing the public very early on starting from January.
Obviously here’s a people which follows the world and in the age of communication, people saw what was happening in other countries and with that fear, they confined themselves to home. When they were told not to go outside, they did not go and acted in line with instructions. Actually, there was such a level of awareness that people put pressure on those strolling in groups outside, warning them that they were putting the public’s health at risk.
Obviously, we have a small population. The fact that we are an island and we are under isolation worked in our favor perhaps for the very first time. The borders were closed very early on despite the fact that we had very few cases.
What is the current picture like?
We have 108 total cases and four deaths, two of which are from the island, and no new cases since April. There is criticism from the public that not enough tests are being conducted and that cases are being hidden. We are telling the public not to be too worried.
Although we also criticize the ministry’s testing policy, we do know looking at the global experience that at least 20 percent show serious symptoms, and that would mean that these people would have come to hospitals.
So currently, I am convinced we do not have cases. However, as long as COVID-19 cases continue in the world, this means that there is a risk that it can come to our island too. In order to provide for our needs, we have to open ourselves to the outside world, and once we open up, we will face the risk of the virus.
So as the KTTB, we say the aim should not be to stay sterile but to get prepared and fill in the gaps in our health infrastructure and prepare for the second wave.
How is the public currently behaving?
They have become too relaxed. But still, there have been no cases in nearly two months. We have opened the borders with the south as there are no local cases there either. There are one or two cases from abroad, but they have been taken under quarantine. The borders with Turkey will open on July 1; the initial plan was to for travelers to provide test results as they board the plane, but now, in addition, they will also be subjected to a test upon arrival.
Both the NGOs and the public are increasingly voicing their requests for more vigilance in terms of opening the borders. We know we have to open the borders, but society wants the necessary measures to be taken in order to safely open the borders by making realistic risk assessments for other countries and preparing the health infrastructure so that we can handle things in the event that there is an increase in cases.
What are the shortcomings?
We need to create extra bed capacity, especially so that our other patients are not negatively affected. We need more intensive care units, more personal protection equipment, as well as drugs for use in treatment. We also need training for health workers and a better organizational roadmap from the Health Ministry.
Were you able to access international scientific information?
We remained within the international scientific network, but the WHO did not register our cases. We sent a letter to the WHO informing them of our cases, saying that even though they prefer to ignore us for political purposes, this is not a political but a humanitarian health problem and that they should show medical solidarity with us. There is currently a campaign for membership in the WHO. We did not experience problems in terms of accessing information, but we had difficulties in bringing in the drugs as, for instance, China does not recognize us.
How has cooperation with the South been?
Cooperation took place under the bi-communal Technical Committee on Health that has been working for years. The committee assisted the transfer of some medical equipment from south to north or the transfer of patients caught on the wrong side during lockdown.
We always call upon our Greek Cypriot counterparts for cooperation, and we renewed our call during this period through a newspaper published in the south. But they have not gotten back to us yet.
*Who is Özlem Gürkut?
Özlem Gürkut is the president of Cyprus Turkish Medical Association.
Born in 1968 in Lefkoşa, Gürkut went to high school in Turkish Cyprus. She then graduated from Istanbul University’s Cerrahpaşa Medical Faculty. She then studied internal medicine at Haseki State Hospital in Istanbul.
Currently, she works at the oncology center in the Burhan Nalbantoğlu State Hospital. She was elected in 2018 as president to Cyprus Turkish Medical Association, which has 1,300 members.