Tunisia enters new lockdown on muted anniversary of uprising

Deep disillusionment, soaring contaminations have eclipsed any thought of anniversary celebration.
Wednesday 13/01/2021
A man wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus walks past deserted beachside coffeeshops, in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 13 2021. AFP
A man wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus walks past deserted beachside coffeeshops, in Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 13 2021. (AFP)

TUNIS--Tunisia has announced a four-day coronavirus lockdown starting later this week as it faces a “very dangerous” spike in infections.

The measures, which include a curfew between 4:00pm — brought forward from the existing 8:00pm curfew — and 6:00am, will be imposed from Thursday January 14, which marks the 10th anniversary of the day the late President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled by street protests.

There was criticism on social media and TV shows of the lockdown’s short duration, as experts suggested anything shorter than two weeks would be unlikely to have tangible effects in fighting the pandemic. Some speculated the measures were more intended to limit the spread of COVID-19 contamination in schools and prevent street unrest by discontented crowds on the eve of the anniversary of the 2011 uprising.

In Tunisia, where the so-called Arab spring started, events marking the anniversary will be muted, as the “revolutionary optimism” of the social protest movement that brought down the Ben Ali regime has given way to hopelessness, especially with one third of young people without a job.

Since 2011, Tunisia has been plagued by political instability as well as sinking wages, growing joblessness and worsening public services. Unemployment has risen from 15% to 18%. Attempts to migrate to Europe by sea have soared.

“People want public services,” said Michael Bechir Ayari, a senior analyst of Tunisia at the International Crisis Group. “They feel that under Ben Ali it was easier because the paternalistic system was much more reliable than now.”

The pandemic has exacerbated economic and social tensions in the country, which has recently weathered a steep rise in infections after recording only about 50 deaths during the pandemic’s first wave. Confirmed cases and death figures began to climb on June 27 when authorities lifted international travel restrictions.

A medical technician collects a nasal swabs sample to test for COVID-19 at a mobile testing site in Tunis, Tunisia. (AFP)
A medical technician collects a nasal swabs sample to test for COVID-19 at a mobile testing site in Tunis, Tunisia. (AFP)

The recent rise in infections has seen several thousand new cases and dozens of new deaths reported each day, with the official total now standing at 164,936 cases and 5,343 deaths.

Nissaf Ben Alaya, director of the National Observatory of New and Emerging Diseases, which recommended the measures, warned “the situation is very dangerous… and exceeds the capacity to care for the sick.”

Hospital officials have warned of a lack of intensive care beds, despite the establishment of makeshift hospitals.

Health Minister Faouzi Mehdi said classes in schools, colleges and faculties would be suspended from January 13 to 24.

All cultural and other events will be prohibited during the lockdown, he added, while also calling for people to work from home “as much as possible.”

The minister attributed the rise in infections to a “lack of respect for health measures.”

Authorities, however, have been criticised for failing to predict the impact of lifting international travel restrictions last June and for not ordering sufficient quantities of vaccines on time.

Two million doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine are expected to arrive in the beginning of the next quarter, enough for one million of the country’s 11-million population.

The government is negotiating additional deliveries with other laboratories.