Turkish health workers bullish at virus 'ground zero'

Istanbul (AFP) –


Voices reverberate around the room in Turkey's busiest medical emergency hotline in Istanbul, where there has been a surge in calls during the coronavirus crisis.

Wearing masks and sitting in front of screens where they have a list of questions, the centre's employees are some of those who have witnessed first hand the size of the pandemic, which has killed nearly 3,000 people in Turkey.

The majority of Turkey's cases have been recorded in Istanbul, a city of 15 million.

"We are ground zero for COVID-19," said Fatih Turkmen, the ambulance service chief of the centre, handling calls on the European side of the city straddling two continents.

Turkmen said the centre received between 30,000 and 35,000 calls a day, reaching almost 40,000 at points during the pandemic, although some requests are not related to coronavirus.

The average number of calls to the centre before the crisis was around 20,000 a day, he told AFP.

If there is a suspected case of coronavirus or an illness that might require an ambulance, the call handlers can ask a doctor nearby to help with further questions.

When ambulances are needed, they are swiftly dispatched, often with sirens blaring on the unusually quiet streets of a once-bustling city.

In Bagcilar district, two emergency medics dressed head-to-toe in white hazmat suits, face shields and masks, take a woman's temperature and check her blood pressure.

She suffers from diabetes and hypertension and has complained of persistent throat pain and a fever.

The 50-year-old woman had already been diagnosed with coronavirus and taken to hospital but was sent home as her situation was deemed not to be critical.

After the latest check, she was taken to a hospital while curious neighbours watched.

Following every visit, emergency teams must put all their one-use equipment in a bag and disinfect the ambulance.

The risk is real for health workers on the frontline. The Turkish Medical Association said last week out of 3,474 health workers infected, 2,005 were in Istanbul.

Turkey is the worst-affected country in the Middle East with 114,653 recorded cases and 2,992 deaths, according to official figures published on Tuesday.

But Turkmen is confident, saying there has been a decline in calls matching the fall in the daily death tolls.

He stressed the situation was under control even if global fears of a second wave of cases are confirmed.

"What we are sure of is that we will be prepared," he said.