‘Rebels of quarantine’ frustrate Tunisian authorities

Faced with multiple violations, worried Tunisians urged authorities to take drastic measures.
Sunday 22/03/2020
People walk at the Kasbah souk in the old town of Tunis, March 10. (AFP)
Considering a lockdown. People walk at the Kasbah souk in the old town of Tunis, March 10. (AFP)

Health authorities around the world have pressed on their populations a piece of basic advice to avoid coronavirus infection: social distancing. However, adhering to restrictions on public gatherings has not proven easy for many Tunisians.

Calling on people to avoid crowds or observe self-quarantine for 14 days appears to be asking too much. In many places, cafes and mosques were still highly frequented. Public transportation in Tunis was as crowded as ever. People appeared oblivious to the danger they face or lacked awareness about the effects of the extraordinary crisis.

In some parts of Tunisia, recklessness was strangely resilient. Many threw away the idea of isolation and refused to disrupt their way of life. They, especially returnees from abroad, preferred to embrace usual habits of meeting, gathering and socialising.

With the country’s less than 40 confirmed cases, Tunisian authorities announced that almost 60% of their coronavirus patients were people coming from abroad. However, the number of infections is likely to quickly spike.

Still, officials find it difficult to convince citizens of the dire consequences of not respecting measures aimed at stemming the spread of the virus. Making sure rebellious citizens returning from abroad and others observe a quarantine has become a full-time job for authorities. A few reluctant souls have been put under house arrest.

In Nabeul, Regional Health Director Adel Haddadi said 90% of returnees from abroad were not respecting self-isolation advice. He said there are many difficulties in tracking returnees from countries where the virus has spread, since receiving lists of all arrivals throughout the whole country and not just the province created difficulty in monitoring commitment to self-quarantine.

Another citizen returning from abroad refused to be quarantined by the regional authorities in the northern province of Jendouba. For 12 days, the 62-year-old did not abide by self-isolation, defying authorities and visiting friends and family around Ain Draham.

On March 18, on the first day of the curfew, a Polish tourist and her Tunisian friend were arrested in Hammamet for breaking the curfew.

“Rebellion” is not just about returnees, locals are frustrating authorities not considering a total daytime lockdown. Still oblivious to the gravity of the situation, people mingle in coffee shops and public spaces but also for social events.

Law enforcement agents used tear gas to disperse a gathering in Sousse, where dozens of people attended a ram fight. Organisers did not want to stop the show until police used force to disperse the crowd.

Municipalities have banned wedding celebration parties to avoid contamination. To lead by example, Minister of Health Abdellatif Mekki announced the postponement of his son’s wedding.

Faced with multiple violations, worried Tunisians urged authorities to take drastic measures. Search warrants, court complaints and even the withdrawal of passports are being considered for people who do not respect preventive measures set by the country but that did not seem to be enough.

Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh on March 16 announced decisions aimed at damage control and at reassuring the public. Gatherings and markets were banned, cultural and sporting events were cancelled while the workday for state employees was reduced to five hours.

Through the change in administrative hours, he sought to reduce pressure on public transportation during peak hours, a strategy that was thwarted by the curfew decision.

Tunisian President Kais Saied, to counter the spread of the coronavirus, announced a curfew from 6pm-6am. Less than 24 hours later, images of people crowded on buses on their way home before the curfew enraged Tunisians. “Is this a really a good decision?” some internet users wondered. “In Tunisia, the coronavirus does not come out until after 4pm, that is why officials took all of these decisions,” joked others.

With the rapid evolution of the situation and the many measures instituted — some considered contradictory — calming the people and controlling the “rebels of quarantine” appear to be among priorities of Tunisian officials.

Authorities try to convince people they could be spared the full effects of the health catastrophe by minimising the immeasurable threat the whole world is facing. Saied even said that the threat will be gone in two weeks. The spiking number of cases tells another story.