My days of COVID-19 quarantine in Tunis
From afar, a silhouette of a man riding a bicycle appeared in the dark and quiet night. Looking from my window, the street was deserted, except for the man making quick stops as he went down the street.
I checked my phone — it was past 9pm. The scene seems odd because the Tunisian government declared a 6pm-6am curfew as one of the many measures to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
The first confirmed COVID-19 case in Tunisian was announced March 2. During the week that followed, life seemed normal. The week after that, however, calls for suspension of classes in universities and schools multiplied. After more cases were confirmed there was the suspension of classes on March 12.
Yet, past curfew, this man was out there on his bike, stopping to collect plastic bottles. He makes a living selling plastic for recycling companies.
Despite the curfew and quarantine, many like him struggle to make a living under such circumstances. Not all have the luxury of staying home. He passed my window and I returned to the room that has been my quarantine for the past two weeks. I content myself with only watching from the window.
A week after the announcement of the first confirmed case of COVID-19, an unknown number showed on my phone. The caller introduced herself as a doctor at the Tunisian Ministry of Health. She informed me that I must be under quarantine for two weeks.
The call continued in a tirade explaining precautions to be taken for people living with me and those in contact with me. “Just don’t go to the emergency room if you have a fever. Call 190,” the voice gravely said.
The call was not a surprise. A day before, I learnt that I was inadvertently in contact with a confirmed case, one of the six announced on March 9. Therefore, my quarantine began.
Trapped between the walls of my room, days began to resemble each other. The first days of quarantine meant waiting for symptoms, notably fever. It also meant waiting for news from friends exposed to the virus, hoping that none of us got the disease.
Health Ministry news conferences became daily and that is when a new reality began to settle in. The cases the ministry referred to as numbers became people I knew, people who are friends.
It would never happen to me, everyone keeps saying. We, fragile human beings, believe we are immune until a deadly virus spreads. No one is immune. “A whole generation is wiped out in Italy,” a newspaper headline reads.
Calls from friends poured in support. There were also the calls from the Ministry of Health to check on my symptoms.
Anxiety took a heavy toll. On good weather days, I would sit on the balcony and watch people carrying on with their normal lives. Yet, the previously bustling streets became emptier and emptier as the government began enforcing new measures, including curfew and lockdown.
One day until the end of my 2-week quarantine, the Tunisian government announced a 2-week lockdown beginning March 22. Both Tunisian President Kais Saied and Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh gave speeches urging Tunisians to be more responsible facing the pandemic.
Fakhfakh announced measures relative to economic repercussions of the lockdown, vowing to prioritise people over the economy. Some of the announcements were met with appreciation but many people were sceptical.
Many Tunisians are worried about their livelihood in the time of pandemic. A friend’s brother, who owns a small business, seemed filled with angst talking about providing salaries for his employees. Others depend on manual labour to earn money. Many others seem to grapple with ways to survive this lockdown.
The bottle-collecting man is only one of the many who were hit hard by the lockdown and the curfew. Thousands are under quarantine and the rest of the country is in lockdown.
The first day of lockdown seemed frustrating as Tunisians went out without valid reasons. Going into the second day of lockdown, more police cars and the army were seen patrolling the streets, telling people to stay home and sanctioning those who did not respect the lockdown.
On the fourth day of the lockdown, Minister of Health Abdellatif Mekki urged Tunisians to stay at home because it was the only way to curb the spread of the virus as it entered the phase of communitarian infection. He looked exhausted; 173 coronavirus cases were confirmed in Tunisia.
Albert Camus wrote: “To state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
There are sparks of hope. Tunisian artists began initiatives on Facebook asking Tunisian citizens to stay at home, organising performances of music, dance, book reviews and storytelling for children under the Tunisian version of stay home, “Ched Darek.”
There is help with the lack of medical equipment, with engineering students rushing to create masks using the materials they have. Many volunteers have been organising themselves to sanitise public spaces and to sensitise citizens who ignore the lockdown. Others have rallied to help underprivileged families in need.
Being out from one quarantine but into lockdown, I look at my last pre-virus normal day with nostalgia. The sky was grey but not overbearing. A chilly breeze filled the air. There was an inexplicable lightness in the grey clouds. The streets playing their usual tunes of bustling people, roaring engines and occasional raindrops.
The sight of my friend waiting at the cafe overcame my mixed feelings about the week that had passed, feelings that faltered between excitement and disappointment. With every coffee, there was a bitterness of letting go a memory, a story, people… I ordered my usual, a cup of black coffee. That was the last normal day I can think of.
Millions all over the world can relate. A friend jokingly complained about her mother who, despite having spent her whole time at home before, desperately wanted to go out to visit places she has never been to.
It is difficult to adjust. That is normal. To feel anxious is normal. To worry about what this means for you and your family is normal.
Spending weeks in my room is now my new normal. Having a coffee over a video call with a friend is now my daily normal. Texting pictures of my lunch and dinner to my friends on
WhatsApp is my normal. Hours-long phone conversations with aunts and brothers punctuate my day and that is my normal.
Yet, my normal is a privilege. Others do not have this privilege. Think about them when you feel restless to leave the house because you are bored or because you need to go out for a walk.
What is not normal is that we give up. What is not normal is risking lives by not respecting these measures. The normal now is millions of people around the world from different backgrounds, nationalities and religions sharing the same worries and facing the same threat. Millions are confined.
What is not normal is that we forget that we are all the same, after all. We are that man in the empty street trying to make a living.