Far-right leader accuses medical union of being ‘separatist’ amid healthcare workers’ strike

Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and an ally of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has accused the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) of being “separatist” for pointing out that more and more doctors are leaving Turkey for better job opportunities abroad, Turkish Minute reported.

“They [TTB] now say our doctors are leaving Turkey. Physicians whose hearts beat with patriotism aren’t going anywhere. … If there are people who need to leave this country, they are a handful of separatists embedded in the administration of the TTB who are against Turkey. May they leave and never come back. If others want to leave [Turkey], suit themselves,” Bahçeli said.

The MHP leader’s remarks came during his party’s group meeting on Tuesday and on the second day of a healthcare professionals’ strike across Turkey, which is aimed at getting their demands heard by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.

Workers from 10 health organizations, including the TTB, are demanding manageable workloads, increased security, and a rise in pay due to the huge workload caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, rising cases of physical violence against healthcare employees, and soaring inflation –- registered at a two-decade high, according to official figures -– that reduce doctors’ salaries to close to the minimum wage.

Bahçeli targeted the TTB after they criticized Erdoğan for causing resentment and outrage among the country’s medical community last week by condemning in a speech an increasing number of Turkish doctors who choose to move to the private sector or go abroad for better job opportunities, and saying they are free to go and that Turkey will find ways to make up for their loss.

Failing to mention the healthcare workers’ complaints about the dramatic increase in physical violence from their own patients and the huge workload, Erdoğan had focused on doctors’ demands on pay, which he dismissed as unwarranted.

“He is sitting on billions of dollars and accusing doctors of being greedy. … In the past students used to live in the same house. Now three interns are living in the same house [to get by]. … This hurts us,” TTB Secretary-General Vedat Bulut told the Sözcü daily last week, referring to Erdoğan.

“In the president’s speech, we witnessed the pain of someone who is leaving. … In the 2023 elections, they’ll leave and we’ll stay,” Bulut added, hinting at the ruling AKP’s declining electoral support.

However, Erdoğan on Monday made a U-turn on the remarks that led to outrage among the country’s doctors, saying Turkey needs its doctors and that measures are on the way to improve the working conditions of healthcare professionals.

Erdoğan’s remarks, which showed a clear softening in his stance towards doctors, were made at an event in Ankara on the occasion of Medicine Day, which is marked every March 14 in Turkey.

Erdoğan said his government would take action to solve the problems of the medical community, including the introduction of harsher penalties for crimes against health professionals, the creation of a professional liability board, improvements in salary, better retirement benefits and an increase in payments to family physicians.

While 1,405 doctors left their jobs in Turkey to work abroad in 2021, 197 more emigrated in January alone, according to TTB figures. Local media reports say thousands more are getting ready to leave if the Turkish government fails to meet their demands.

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