Spike in COVID-19 cases triggers alarm in Tunisia

On August 21, the Tunisian health ministry issued a decree requiring citizens to wear protective masks in public areas.
Thursday 27/08/2020
Tunisian women wear face masks for protection against the novel coronavirus at a market in the southwestern Tunisian town of Gabes on August 26. (AFP)
Tunisian women wear face masks for protection against the novel coronavirus at a market in the southwestern Tunisian town of Gabes on August 26. (AFP)

TUNIS- Over the last few months, Tunisia has seen coronavirus cases rapidly increase, amid fears that a spike in local cases will eventually lead to an uncontrollable wave of the novel virus that has already dealt a devastating blow to the country’s struggling economy.

The municipal headquarters in the Tunis district of Hay El-Khadra was closed Thursday so that the building could be thoroughly sanitised following suspicion that a guard from the municipality had contracted the virus.

In the southern town of Gabes, the situation was reportedly far more serious, with authorities confirming 41 new local cases, including 10 in El Hamma, 27 in Gabes City and 4 in Oudherf.

That brought the total number of COVID-19 cases in Gabes to 690, said a source from the regional health directorate.

During a news conference on Wednesday, Nissaf Ben Alaya, director general of the National Observatory for New and Emerging Diseases, said that 20 Tunisian governorates had been affected by the virus to varying degrees. He named the cities of Gabes, Kef, Ben Arous, Tunis, Kairouan and Sousse as the worst hit.

A patient infected by the covid-19 caused by the novel coronavirus receives treatment at the intensive care unit of a hospital in the southwestern Tunisian town of Gabes on August 26. (AFP)
A patient infected by the covid-19 caused by the novel coronavirus receives treatment at the intensive care unit of a hospital in the southwestern Tunisian town of Gabes on August 26. (AFP)

“The chains of the virus transmission are primarily linked to gatherings, including weddings. Chains of transmission have also been observed in some factories,” she said.

The spread of COVID-19 in factories began in Sousse, then in El Hamma and now in Ben Arous, Ben Alaya said, emphasising the need to wear a mask and respect health protocols.

Ben Alaya cited the example of Ben Arous, where 50 people tested positive for COVID-19 in a factory.

“Even if they are healthy carriers of the virus, these workers pose a a threat to their families as they have become vectors of transmission,” she said.

The health official also pointed to contagions at wedding celebrations.

“People coming from abroad should not attend such gatherings,” she recommended, deploring the serious chain of transmission that has occurred in Kef because of people’s failure to respect anti-coronavirus measures and health recommendations.

On August 21, the Tunisian health ministry issued a decree requiring citizens to wear protective masks in public areas.

On Wednesday, Tunisia’s health ministry announced zero new deaths and 137 new infections, including 120 local cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in the country to 3,206.

The Tunisian government imposed strict preventive measures shortly after the detection of the first coronavirus case in the country on March 2.

Those measures, which included a full lockdown, yielded positive results, with the country recording no new coronavirus cases until May 11, after which the government opted to further relax restrictions on movement and businesses.

On May 4, the country started to relax its lockdown, reopening parts of the food, construction and transport sectors and allowing about half of government employees to return to their jobs.

Shopping centres, clothing shops and hairdressers reopened May 18, as the country moved closer to bringing the health crisis under control.

Restrictions were curbed even further on June 14 despite fears of a risk of a second wave of infections.

Tunisia said the country’s economy will likely shrink this year by up to 7%, the steepest drop since independence in 1956. In the second quarter, it has already contracted by more than 21% compared to the same quarter last year. The tourism sector could lose $1.4 billion and 400,000 jobs this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.