Istanbul (Reuters) – Turkey’s top medical association and the main opposition party on Thursday criticised a decision by President Tayyip Erdogan’s government to only publicly disclose new coronavirus cases if the patient is showing symptoms.
Members of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) and of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) said the policy, acknowledged late on Wednesday by the health minister, hides the true scale of the pandemic and was meant to keep the economy moving.
In a Wednesday press conference, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca appeared to acknowledge the government did not publish the full number of daily positive COVID-19 cases when he said it only tallies those who are symptomatic.
The TTB, which has warned of government underreporting for months, said its doubts were confirmed. “You have not led a transparent process. You hid the truth. You did not prevent the pandemic from spreading,” it said on Twitter.
After a summer dip, Turkey’s official daily coronavirus cases rose in recent months to more than 1,700, matching levels in May when a partial lockdown was in place. The tally shows cases fell in recent days to roughly 1,400, with 60-70 deaths.
Beginning on July 29, the health ministry began publishing the number of new daily “patients” – which Minister Koca defined as symptomatic – rather than “cases” that he said shows the total number of new positive tests.
While Koca said the government did not disclose asymptomatic cases, he stressed that contact-tracing teams still managed to isolate them and prevent the virus from spreading.
“Those in this group are not of primary importance for the pandemic,” he said on Wednesday.
One study published last month in the journal PloS Medicine found that 20% of infected people are asymptomatic.
Turkish doctors and politicians, including the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, have said in recent months the outbreak is worse than reported in the national tally, citing hospital conditions and local data.
They have called for stronger measures than the current mandatory use of masks and social distancing, even new stay-home orders. Ankara lifted weekend lockdowns and travel restrictions and reopened most businesses in June.
Sebnem Korur Fincanci, a TTB central council member, told Reuters “an approach that prioritises the right to live” would ensure all cases are reported so the public can take the necessary precautions.
Osman Elbek, on the association’s COVID-19 observation council, said science does not support withholding data on asymptomatic infections.
“Unfortunately, in the world and in Turkey, an increase in COVID-19 is seen as a political failure that could lead to a limiting of trade and tourism,” he said.
Turkey’s economy shrank nearly 10% in the second quarter. The government predicts a quick recovery but most economists say the economy will contract this year.
Koca said on Thursday the government “is protecting its national interest as much as the health of its public” in fighting COVID-19, which has killed more than 8,000 in Turkey.
On Tuesday CHP lawmaker Murat Emir published a document that purportedly showed positive cases on Sept. 10 stood at 29,377, versus the 1,512 new patients officially announced that day.
Koca refuted the data and said the ministry had no such interface as shown in the document. Reuters could not independently confirm the data.
On Thursday, Emir said the government began reporting “patients” in July to change public perceptions, adding daily cases are now around 20,000. “Our citizens have the right to know this,” he said, adding a depleted fiscal budget prevented the government from adopting costly new measures. “They fought with the numbers instead of fighting with the pandemic.”