Tunisia to adopt ‘health emergency’ bill as pandemic overwhelms system

Citizens complain of “unfair” distribution of vaccines and government laxity in imposing protective measures.
Wednesday 28/04/2021
Medical staff assist a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at an intensive care department at a hospital in Ariana, Tunisia, April 26, 2021. (AFP)
Medical staff assist a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at an intensive care department at a hospital in Ariana, Tunisia, April 26, 2021.(AFP)

TUNIS--The government announced Wednesday it will submit to parliament a “health emergency” bill that will help the authorities impose more stringent restrictions including stiffer fines to deal with an out-of-control pandemic.

It will also maintain measures already in place including closing schools and a 7pm curfew for cars and a 10pm curfew for the general public.

Incoming international travellers will face a “compulsory” seven-day confinement in designated locations.

Senior health official Nissaf Ben Alaya described the current situation as “very, very serious”.

Last week one of the government’s scientific advisers warned the health system was on the brink of collapse, with between 90-110 new patients in need of hospitalisation every day. Tunisia has only about 500 intensive care beds.

The medics at Abderahmen Mami hospital, in the capital’s Ariana district, are part of a health system pushed to its limit, with intensive care wards filled by a new surge in COVID-19 cases that has outstripped a vaccination campaign limited by short supplies.

Dressed in a full protective suit, with only the band of her face between her mask and hair cap exposed, nurse Soumaya Ben Dhabou said the demand for oxygen and intensive care treatment was growing.

“The beds we have are full and we do not have vacancies,” she added.

Ben Dhabou and other medics at Abderahmen Mami hospital were working flat out this week, tending to intubate patients in the hospital’s 20 intensive care beds, whose chests rose and fell slowly to the backdrop of beeping machines.

Jalila Ben Khalil, a member of the government’s scientific committee, who last week warned of a collapse in Tunisia’s healthcare system, said the state should declare a health emergency and implement new measures.

When the global pandemic hit last year, the government locked down the country for two months, delaying the arrival of a COVID-19 surge until the autumn but at a heavy cost for a poor, indebted economy. Last June it abruptly lifted all travel bans without taking any precautions.

As the latest wave has overwhelmed hospitals, the profile of patients is younger and includes more of those without chronic diseases, Ben Dhabou said. “After a year of fighting the virus, the medical and paramedical staff are exhausted,” she added.

Tunisia is receiving vaccinations through the World Health Organisation’s COVAX scheme, but the rate of delivery is slow. At a vaccination centre this week, elderly people sat for hours waiting for their jabs.

About 300,000 people have been vaccinated so far from the total population of 12 million, with about 13,000 jabs administered each day.

A great deal of confusion has however surrounded the vaccination rollout . Senior citizens and people with chronic diseases continue to complain about being left out of the immunisation drive even though theoretically they are on the vaccination priority list.

Some have even alleged that the online registration platform is being “manipulated” by unknown parties to offer undue privileges to individuals and groups of the population at the expense of others. They offer no evidence for their suspicions except the cases documented on social media of non-priority citizens being vaccinated.

The government has also confirmed that senior government officials have been vaccinated.

Independent NGO I-Watch has protested the many “irregularities” affecting the fairness of the vaccination campaign.

Experts believe tensions are rising because of the insufficient vaccination stocks as the government was late in ordering the required quantities of jabs due to political instability since last year.