Tunisia suffers painful setback in fight against coronavirus

The trend is a startling reverse from the early days of the pandemic, when Tunisia was hailed as a model for keeping the virus at bay.
Thursday 24/09/2020
Tunisian high school students have their temperatures checked at the courtyard of a school in Tunisia’s capital Tunis. (AFP)
Tunisian high school students have their temperatures checked at the courtyard of a school in Tunisia’s capital Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS – After its early success in staving off the coronavirus, Tunisia has lost ground in the fight against the pandemic, recording a near ten-fold rise in cases over the past month that is beginning to put a strain on its health services, local workers say.

On September 23, Tunisia tracked a record 1,219 new cases, bringing its total caseload to 12,479 and intensive care patients to 72. The spike has raised concerns that the country’s health sector, burdened by limited professionals and medical equipment, could soon be overwhelmed, and push a government already struggling to address economic and political turbulence to the brink. 

The trend is a startling reverse from the early days of the pandemic, when Tunisia was hailed as a model for keeping the virus at bay with quick preventative measures such as lockdowns and border closures. In June, when nearby European countries were fighting off spiraling outbreaks, Tunisia had nearly eliminated local transmission and brought active cases down to less than 100.

On June 14, then Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh declared “victory” over the disease, saying the country’s “national unity” had helped it achieve “impressive” results.

Tunisian worshipers pray at Malek Ibn Anas mosque in Carthage. (AFP)
Tunisian worshipers pray at Malek Ibn Anas mosque in Carthage. (AFP)

But growing economic pressures at the height of the crucial tourism season pushed the country to open back up later that month, breathing some life into desperate businesses and the waning service sector. Aware of the risk, the government introduced strict guidelines for incoming travelers — including country-specific restrictions and compulsory confinement periods — as well as stringent health protocol at hotels, restaurants and other facilities. Nevertheless, cases have since steadily increased, bringing all 24 of the country’s governorates into the red zone — classified as the most serious phase of virus transmission.

Nissaf Ben Alaya, director general of the National Observatory of New and Emerging Diseases, said on Wednesday that “an average of more than 50 coronavirus infections per 100,000 inhabitants have been recorded in 24 provinces, with an increase in the number of cases that require hospitalisation.”

Those on the frontlines are reacting to the development with alarm — worried that if the outbreak grows, there will not be enough manpower or resources to provide effective treatment.

“There is not enough equipment and not enough people to work,” Hamza Zegnani, an emergency medical technician at a public hospital in Mahdia, told The Arab Weekly. “We cannot deal with the situation.”

Tunisia has an estimated 500 ICU beds in public and private hospitals, which Ben Alaya noted are not yet “under any pressure.” But health experts note that a lack of intensive care doctors could prove even more damaging, particularly in rural and interior regions where the shortage is most acute.

“The lack of staff and equipment is exhausting us psychologically and physically,” Hmida Kawas, head of the respiratory diseases department at the Gabes Hospital, previously told The Arab Weekly “We are really afraid that we will not be able to continue.”

Sensing the danger, the government has taken stricter control measures in recent days, requiring masks to be worn in all public places, working to open up a new test lab and further restricting incoming travel. However, it has resisted growing calls to impose another lockdown, arguing the country’s economy simply cannot sustain the blow.

“Reinstating (the) March lockdown is not an option,” said Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi on September 21, instead advocating for broader awareness campaigns and stricter health protocol.

Medical experts are echoing Mechichi’s call to the public, but bracing for the worst as the difficult fall and winter seasons approach with no signs of improvement.

“A combined COVID-19 pandemic and flu epidemic is the worst posssible scenario,” Hechmi Louzir, the head of the Tunis-based Institut Pasteur, the country’s leading virology research and monitoring centre, warned, urging the public to get the flu vaccination.

Habib Guedira, a member of a scientific committee for the fight against the coronavirus, cautioned: “This situation will worsen within a month from now and will become very dangerous if Tunisians do not adhere to health prevention measures and follow the necessary precautions included in the general health protocol, such as physical spacing, wearing masks and washing hands.”