The coronavirus brought landmark changes to daily life in Turkey since the first cases were reported in March 2020. Along with new words like “filyasyon” (contact tracing) and the HES (Life Fits Into Home) code, the public also became familiar with dozens of the country’s top infectious disease experts. The Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, formed by the Health Ministry, is also a household name for the public nowadays.
Along with the Social Sciences Board later formed by the ministry, it decides steps to take amid the outbreak, which has claimed 25,865 lives in the country so far, gives recommendations to the state administration and drafts road maps on multiple aspects of the outbreak, from vaccination to restrictions to curb the pandemic.
The two boards, comprised of medical professionals from across the country, held 59 meetings last year under the leadership of Health Minister Fahrettin Koca. Although the coverage of meetings fizzled out recently with improvement in the situation, each meeting, or rather, press conference, held by Koca after the meetings, had people glued to screens in the early days of the outbreak. Meetings still continue usually on a weekly basis, but most are followed with a written statement about discussions. The meetings also are being held via videoconference recently.
Yet, the boards’ influence on daily life continues. The government plans ahead in the fight against the outbreak with its advice, and though the boards themselves have not announced as many new measures as in the past months, the authorities’ announcements of new restrictions or their lifting still rely on their recommendations.
The Health Ministry formed the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board on Jan. 10, 2020, as coronavirus cases started spreading in the world, and two months before Turkey itself reported its first cases. Among the members of this large board are experts in infectious diseases and clinical microbiology, doctors specialized in children’s infectious diseases, public health professionals, doctors from different branches, from intensive care medicine to anesthetic experts. The Health Ministry’s top officials and officials from the Board of Higher Learning (YÖK) also joined the board.
As the outbreak lingered, the ministry decided to form the Social Sciences Board on June 7, 2020, to examine the psychological impact of the pandemic on the public and to support public health efforts. The second board includes both medical professionals as well as sociology and communications experts.
Although their meetings are closed to the press, members of science boards have been a staple of daily COVID-19 coverage in the Turkish media. They give interviews, attend live broadcasts almost daily and tirelessly advocate the need to comply with measures against the coronavirus, from wearing masks to adhering to social distancing. Their statements also shape the public perception of the coronavirus. Nowadays, they are busy convincing people to trust vaccines as the mass vaccination has started across the country, where vaccine skeptics, also known as anti-vaxxers, seek to spread disinformation through social media.
Professor Rahmet Güner, a member of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board who also serves as a doctor at Ankara City Hospital’s Department of Infectious Diseases in the capital, said 2020 has been a very busy year for them. “We are working to protect the public health,” she told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Sunday. The worst part was certainly the times when the number of cases escalated due to people ignoring rules put in place to slow the outbreak, according to Güner. “We never want to go back to those times. I sometimes feel pessimistic when I see my patients’ health worsen. I remember those patients whenever I see someone ignoring the rules out on the street. People should face the fact of the pandemic and should protect themselves,” she said. “We want people to be careful to stop the rise in the number of cases, but at times, I feel like my voice is not heard,” she lamented. Güner herself strictly follow rules and had to cancel her visit to her parents. “I comfort myself saying it is for their health,” she said.
Professor Mustafa Necmi Ilhan, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Gazi University in Ankara, serves as a member of the Social Sciences Board. He says many changes amid the outbreak are the result of science boards’ recommendations, from the closure of schools to restrictions on international flights and intercity travel. “The state’s trust in Turkish scientists helped fight the outbreak and to continue with the science boards’ recommendations. The state implemented almost all the measures we recommended. In addition, good practices were implemented like contact tracing crews and an improved monitoring system to track the state of coronavirus patients,” he said. “Apart from restrictions, the government heeded our advice on when to lift them, or on which group of people should the vaccination start. Science once again proved its benefit to society. Scientists only exist as long as they are able to help people. Penning countless articles or having a great number of citations is only a secondary benefit for scientists,” he said.
He added that scientists not working on science boards also greatly contributed to the fight against the virus, from developing preventive treatments to vaccines. “The boards’ work helped to decrease the number of fatalities and infections. Overall, all health care workers helped this, from nurses to paramedics, from doctors to lecturers at medical schools,” he said.
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