As Tunisian Mediterranean beaches get swarmed by tourists, the country plunges further into a dramatic medical situation. With 1.4 casualties per 100.000 inhabitants, the nation is one of the worst-hit in the African continent. A combination of leadership ineptitude, lack of medical resources, and poor political decisions brought Tunisia to its knees. As the vaccination rollout still lags behind, the nation is seeking international help.
In the last weeks, the Middle East and North African region has experienced an important growth in Coronavirus cases, raising the level of patients in Tunisia, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Lebanon. However, when examined in relation to its population, Tunisia has been hit more severely than other states. With a population of around 12 million, the nation has experienced more than 17.000 deaths, making it the African country with the highest level of daily death rate. Recently, the website Our World in Data has classified it as the third state in the world with the highest level of death rate per capita, right after Ecuador and Namibia. Although the World Health Organization has warned to be cautious with these statistics because of the lack of transparency of certain countries, Tunisia’s predicament appears grim. On the 8th of July, the government’s health minister representative, Nissaf Ben Alya, has expressed her sorrow, describing the situation as “catastrophic” and adding that “the ship is sinking” and that “unfortunately, the health system has collapsed”. The World Health Organization has echoed her comment and alerted on the spread of the new Covid19 variant saying that “(T)he situation in Tunisia is still very worrying in light of the widespread spread of the mutated Delta strain" and that casualties “(D)oubled in less than a week, from 119 deaths on 5 July to 189 deaths on 8 July”.
Although the pandemic is a phenomenon that has taken everyone by surprise, the Tunisian situation that existed before the outbreak did not ameliorate the situation.
Indeed, the country has been subjected to instability since the revolution in 2011 that put an end to the reign of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, leaving political factions competing for power. Since then, the city has plunged into a political deadlock, with the leadership unable to form a stable and effective government. An example of the inefficiency of the government is the sacking of Health Minister Faouzi Mehdi in the middle of a medical crisis. The decision came after Faouzi Mehdi chose to open the vaccination centres to all citizens over 18 during the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha. This led to long queues, shortage of shots, fights and stampedes in front of the vaccination hubs. As a result, Tunisia’s Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi has voiced his disapproval for the Health ministry, affirming that “(T)here's an extraordinary level of dysfunction at the head of the health ministry”. He also added that he “no longer recognise the department despite it having a large number of scientific and management skills at its disposable. The numerous failures seen in the daily management of the crisis, however, led us to make this decision”.
Moreover, alongside a leadership crisis, Tunisia has been suffering from financial and medical crises. The economy has been hit hard by the epidemic, making the tourism-reliant country experience significant losses. Likewise, the public health sector has underwent significant shortages, with a lack of oxygen stock, medical staff and intensive care beds. Alongside these issues, the vaccination campaign has progressed slowly, with about only 13% of the citizens having received only one of the two doses of the vaccine. To reverse this trend and to face the political impasse, the president has recently assigned to the military the administration of the vaccination rollout and the handling of the Coronavirus crisis.
To assist in facing the catastrophe, several neighbouring and international states have come to Tunisia’s rescue. Qatar, Algeria, the UAE, Morocco, and Turkey have sent help. Kuwait has offered 20 tonnes of oxygen and 400 cylinders and Jordan has supplied medical equipment and other sanitary necessities. Likewise, Switzerland, China, France, and Italy have given Tunisia hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses, supplies, and respirators.
The three-fold crisis afflicting the economic, political, and medical sectors revealed the deep fractures and weaknesses within the Tunisian system. Although Tunisia is considered to be the only democracy among the Arab countries to stand up against dictatorship in 2011, rivalries among the leadership are still threatening the state’s stability. Since the revolution, parties and key political figures have not been able to create a solid and effective government. Feuds among the higher ruling class have characterised the response to the pandemic. As commented by Youssef Cherif, head of the Columbia Global Center in Tunis, “Covid in general has not been the first priority of the president, the government and the speaker” because “(T)he three of them kept fighting their daily political quarrels rather than addressing the crisis”. The future of the state will not depend exclusively on how they continue facing the virus outbreak but also on the government’s ability to renovate itself.
Written by Cinzia Saro
Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.