Tunisians warned against reversing hard-won progress in coronavirus fight

The rise in infections in recent days prompted health officials to warn that Tunisia is at a critical stage.
Wednesday 08/04/2020
Tunisian police trucks spray disinfectant in Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the centre of Tunis.(AFP)
Wariness. Tunisian police trucks spray disinfectant in Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the centre of Tunis.(AFP)

TUNIS--Tunisian health authorities urged the population to abide by restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, including a nationwide lockdown, the closure of most economic activities and a night curfew that have been in place for weeks.

Tunisia, which took early measures to combat the virus after the first cases were recorded March 2, is seen as at a critical juncture — if its measures are successful, the country could return to relative “normalcy” within weeks; if not, officials fear it could slide into catastrophe.

The country now faces the stiff challenge of preserving its fragile progress — a relatively slower increase in infections and deaths, political consensus and moral unity and national solidarity to beat the disease despite meagre financial resources after nine years of government instability.

But social hardships caused by the fight against COVID-19, including a nearly three-week lockdown, proved difficult to bear for many working-class citizens, who depend on day labour to provide for basic needs, and tested the government’s ability to fully enforce the measures.

Health Minister Abdellatif Mekki, who has led the country’s response to the virus, expressed concern that the country could lose progress if it gets lax in enforcing the measures. “Telling the truth is a moral obligation. I told you before that we had set one foot in the right direction but I must tell you now that we have begun losing the dividends of our effort,” Mekki said.

He blamed “a small minority” of Tunisians for flouting the national lockdown. He also cited the reluctance of Tunisians infected by the virus to go to hospitals or confine themselves in quarantine facilities. Some withheld information about their contacts, which is crucial for testing and isolating suspected cases, he said.

“That threatens the country with the likelihood of a rapid transmission of the disease,” Mekki said.

“Such bad behaviour destroys all the benefits born out of the efforts of citizens who are cooperating with the state to fight the disease. This kind of indifference, lack of concern and disregard of the country’s interests is alarming…

“Doctors and other medical workers will continue carrying out their duties and the state will enforce the respect of the law. But why isn’t the respect of the emergency measures more spontaneous so it reinforces the values of civility and sets a good example for others?” he asked

Mekki highlighted the government’s commitment to its struggle against the “invisible enemy” that is waging a lethal war.

“We will not let a small minority ruin the efforts deployed by a whole people and by state institutions,” said Mekki as he fought back tears of frustration.

“These are tears of strength not tears of weakness,” he said at a news conference with the Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi April 7.

The ministers announced that officials would be more seriously cracking down on those who violate state measures, including by holding gatherings of more than three people in the streets.

“Respect and commitment to the success of emergency measures is needed from everyone. The state institutions will continue the fight against the disease to the last breath. We will fight tooth and nail,” Mekki said, putting the onus on citizens as individuals, families and groups to stay at home and keep the virus away.

Mechichi said security forces had already arrested 600 persons for not respecting the lockdown.

Tunisia has extended its nationwide lockdown measures until April 20 as the number of infections continues to increase.

The lockdown, which started March 23, has closed most businesses, government offices, shops, cafes and restaurants and prohibited people from leaving their homes for all but essential needs.

Confirmed cases in the country rose to nearly 600 and the death toll to 22 as of April 7, according to data from the health ministry.

The rise in infections in recent days prompted health officials to warn that Tunisia is at a critical stage.

Mekki, a physician by training, said March 30 that Tunisia has achieved a “70-80% success” ratio in keeping the disease under control and preventing it from overwhelming the healthcare system.

Citing models that the government’s policy decisions had relied on, Mekki said: “If we keep up the same momentum, we can realise a big achievement and a breakthrough in the fight against the disease.”

“But if we were to give up to the pressures of public opinion, we could lose everything we’ve achieved so far,” he warned.

Tunisia’s main health concern is a possible rise in critical cases that would require hospitalisation in intensive care units, which are in low supply, as well as a potential outbreak of the coronavirus among health professionals.

In recent days, Tunisians crowded post offices to seek financial aid from the government while others took to open markets in large numbers. Out of school, idle youth have gathered in stadiums to play soccer games, while others just relaxed outdoors enjoying sunny days outside.

Meanwhile, army troops and police forces patrolled the streets throughout the country, broadcasting orders to stay indoors through loudspeakers. However, Mekki’s sad tone at the news conference displayed authorities’ concern with some Tunisians’ lack of discipline in respecting lockdown restrictions.

“We are not ready to allow that hard-won benefits be ruined by bad behaviours of small minority,” said Mechichi. “We will severely implement the law.”

Mekki added: “If we respect the isolation and the quarantine during the next two weeks, we will reach a good result. If we fail to do so, the outcome will be bad. It is an issue of national security in the first place. The disease is changing in its aspects and the way it spreads.”

In an encouraging sign that authorities are eyeing ways to reopen society without setting off a wave of contagion, government officials and business leaders met April 7 to discuss a plan to produce 20 million masks for the country.

Mekki has said wearing masks will be mandatory for all Tunisians leaving their home when the country transitions out of lockdown and towards “normalcy.”

Still, Mekki warned that a worst case scenario was still in the cards and spoke of the potential of  “people dying on hospital stairways, in the streets and doctors being forced to choose who among the huge numbers of patients overwhelming health capacities will die or live.”