Deadly coronavirus wave puts privileged and ordinary Tunisians alike at risk

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Tunisia was praised for responding to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 with a full-scale lockdown. But a new surge in delta variant cases means hospitals in the country are now being overwhelmed. (AFP)
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A soldier helps and elderly man to enter the vaccination center in Kesra, Tunisia, on July 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Saber Zidi)
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Tunisia was praised for responding to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 with a full-scale lockdown. But a new surge in delta variant cases means hospitals in the country are now being overwhelmed. (AFP)
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Tunisian doctors are stand next to rows of patients at a gym converted into a temporary hospital amid a surge in COVID-19 infections in Tunisia's Kairouan city on July 4, 2021. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)
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Tunisia was praised for responding to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 with a full-scale lockdown. But a new surge in delta variant cases means hospitals in the country are now being overwhelmed. (AFP)
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Updated 28 July 2021

Deadly coronavirus wave puts privileged and ordinary Tunisians alike at risk

  • Third wave of pandemic has put the country’s healthcare system under enormous strain
  • Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have sent aid to help authorities tackle the crisis

DUBAI: Several towns in Tunisia are reporting a severe shortage of oxygen as a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic puts enormous strain on the North African country’s already stretched healthcare system. 

Intensive care units (ICU) are almost full, with patient numbers greatly exceeding the number of beds available.

Since mid-April, seven-day averages for new infections in Tunisia have ranged between 1,500 to 2,000 daily cases, and even those numbers are believed to be optimistic. Both the Alpha and Delta variants of COVID-19 — which are more transmissible and potentially more dangerous for younger patients — have been found.

“It is a very concerning situation. If we look at the different indicators, all are in red,” Yves Souteyrand, Tunisia representative of the World Health Organization (WHO), told Arab News.

As in many other countries, the latest surge has put the privileged and the ordinary alike at risk. Reuters reported on Tuesday that Rached Ghannouchi, the 80-year-old speaker of Tunisia’s parliament and the leader of the Islamist Ennahda Party, tested positive for COVID-19. In late June, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi was reported to have tested positive.

On July 13, the Health Ministry announced 8,470 new cases and 157 additional deaths, increasing the total rate of both to 510,396 and 16,651 respectively since the start of the pandemic.

The number of new cases almost doubled from the day before, and the daily death toll was the highest since the start of the pandemic.

By some metrics, Tunisia now has Africa’s highest per-capita death toll from COVID-19, and is also recording one of the continent’s highest infection rates.

“Tunisia is a country with the highest mortality rate due to COVID-19 since the beginning in the African continent and the Arab world, which is another matter of concern,” Souteyrand said.

Last week, the Health Ministry acknowledged that the situation was dire. “The current situation is catastrophic. The number of cases has risen dramatically. Unfortunately, the health system has collapsed,” spokesperson Nissaf Ben Alya told a local radio station. 

Souteyrand concurred with the assessment. “We have a very high level of occupancy rates for oxygen beds and ICU beds. In some governorates the occupancy rate is at 100 percent,” he said.

An impediment to progress in the fight against the virus is Tunisia’s persistent political instability. The country has had three different health ministers since the pandemic first hit. In September, Tunisia got its third government in just under a year — the ninth since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings ended the 24-year rule of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.




A soldier helps and elderly man to enter the vaccination center in Kesra, Tunisia,  on July 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Saber Zidi)

The deteriorating coronavirus situation has prompted an outpouring of support. Most GCC countries have sent medical supplies to Tunisia while Egypt, Algeria and Turkey have pledged to do likewise.

Saudi Arabia has dispatched an aid package consisting of 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, 190 artificial respirators, 319 oxygen tanks, 150 medical beds and 50 vital signs monitoring devices with trolleys. This is in addition to medical masks and gloves, pulse oximeters, intravenous drug pumps, defibrillators, video laryngoscopes and ECG machines.

The Kingdom’s donation was made in response to a request from Tunisian President Kais Saied during a call with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last week.

Separately, a plane carrying 500,000 vaccine doses, donated by the UAE, arrived this week in Tunisia. In November, the UAE sent 11 tons of medical diagnostic equipment, ventilators, mobile breathing units and personal protective equipment .

As worrying as the Tunisian situation may be, Souteyrand says there are several factors to consider when talking about the spike in COVID-19 cases, such as testing rates and the spread of the Delta variant.

“Of course, the increase is related to the huge increase in the number of tests. There is a 62 percent increase in the number of tests in one week,” he told Arab News.




Tunisia was praised for responding to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 with a full-scale lockdown. But a new surge in delta variant cases means hospitals in the country are now being overwhelmed. (AFP)

The rate of positive results compared with the number of tests is nearly 34 percent, “which is very high,” he added.

The Delta variant has been described as a “variant of concern” by the WHO, as it is more contagious and has a higher resistance to antibodies than other variants of the virus.

“The Delta variant is spreading quite broadly in the country. It is probable that the current surge of the epidemic is related to the variant,” Souteyrand said.

“Today it is a race between the Delta variant and the measures that we can implement to move forward in controlling the pandemic.”

According to Souteyrand, transparency of reporting is also an important factor.

“It is possible that Tunisia is being more transparent with us than other countries. It is possible that the high number is also due to the fact that deaths are well reported here,” he said.

Even so, many Tunisians blame the government for the failure to control the situation and the lack of healthcare capacity. Some of them have left angry comments on the Health Ministry’s Facebook page, accusing officials of stealing funds.

In late June Mechichi announced that Sunduq 18-18, created by the government to collect donations for dealing with the pandemic, had received more than $71 million.

“The government is totally absent and there is not enough vaccination. People have collected millions of Tunisian dinars in donations but we haven’t seen anything of it,” Ons Hammadi said.

Vaccination rates in Tunisia lag far behind many other Arab countries. The North African nation only received its first batch of shots around mid-March under the COVAX scheme and the rollout has been slow. As of Tuesday, only 730,000 people had been fully vaccinated out of a total of 11.6 million residents, according to Reuters data.

Tunisia was credited with successfully curbing the first COVID-19 wave with strict regulations and a full lockdown. No new positive test results were reported locally as of May 19 and no imported cases as of June 2.

But that success was not without a downside. Gross domestic product contracted by 8.8 percent in 2020, and 3 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same period a year ago. The pandemic’s economic impact and rising unemployment have sparked violent demonstrations.




Tunisia was praised for responding to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 with a full-scale lockdown. But a new surge in delta variant cases means hospitals in the country are now being overwhelmed. (AFP)

The government has been understandably reluctant to move back to a full national lockdown.

For many Tunisians, a major cause for concern continues to be perceived lax enforcement of protective rules and violations of regulations. Surveys show that misinformation, vaccine hesitancy and low perceptions of personal risk have compounded the crisis.

“Our curfew is at 8 p.m., yet you can find people at 11 p.m. outside their homes with no masks on,” Salma Al-Khayat, a master’s student, told Arab News.

“We were feeling the effects of the economic downturn, so we waited for summer. The events that take place in this season could have allowed us to let off some steam. But we have ‘curfews’ as well as restrictions on travelling between states. It’s a lot.”

Al-Khayat has asthma, a condition that puts her in the category of people more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19. Naturally, she hopes to see fellow Tunisians become more observant of pandemic rules in the interest of public safety.

“So far, thank God, I have been protected. I observe protective measures and I think so far it has worked for me,” she told Arab News. “But it has been emotionally draining to watch, on the one hand, some people dying from COVID-19 and the economy suffering, and, on the other hand, many people unwilling to make a little sacrifice in their lifestyles.”


British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

Updated 04 August 2021

British navy group: Hijackers have left vessel off UAE coast

FUJAIRAH, UAE: The hijackers who captured a vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman departed the targeted ship on Wednesday, the British navy reported, as recorded radio traffic appeared to reveal a crew member onboard saying Iranian gunmen had stormed the asphalt tanker.
The incident — described by the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations the night before as a “potential hijack” — revived fears of an escalation in Mideast waters and ended with as much mystery as it began.
Hints of what unfolded on the Panama-flagged asphalt tanker, called Asphalt Princess, began to emerge with the maritime radio recording, obtained by commodities pricing firm Argus Media and shared with The Associated Press. In the audio, a crew member can be heard telling the Emirati coast guard that five or six armed Iranians had boarded the tanker.
“Iranian people are onboard with ammunition,” the crew member says. “We are … now, drifting. We cannot tell you exact our ETA to (get to) Sohar,” the port in Oman listed on the vessel’s tracker as its destination. It was not clear whether the crew members, whom he identified as Indian and Indonesian, were in immediate danger.
No one took responsibility for the brief seizure, which underscored mounting tensions as Iran and the United States seek a resolution to their standoff over Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
Apparently responding to the incident, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Tuesday denied that Iran played any role. He described the recent maritime attacks in the Arabian Gulf as “completely suspicious.”
Over the past years, the rising tensions have played out in the waters of the Arabian Gulf, where just last week a drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman killed two crew members. The West blamed Iran for the raid, which marked the first known fatal assault in the years-long shadow war targeting vessels in Mideast waters. Iran denied involvement.
Late on Tuesday, the intruders boarded the Asphalt Princess sailing off the coast of Fujairah, authorities said. The official news agency of Oman’s military said it received reports that the Asphalt Princess had been hijacked and immediately dispatched Royal Air Force maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels “to contribute to securing international waters.”
In the recorded radio traffic, when the Emirati coast guard asks the crew member what the Iranian gunmen were doing onboard, he says he “cannot understand the (Iranians),” his voice muffled, before trying to hand over the radio to someone else. The call then cuts off.
Possible signs of trouble began to emerge that evening when six oil tankers off the coast of Fujairah announced around the same time via their Automatic Identification System trackers that they were “not under command,” according to MarineTraffic.com. That typically means a vessel has lost power and can no longer steer.
Satellite-tracking data for the Asphalt Princess had showed it gradually heading toward Iranian waters off the port of Jask early Wednesday, according to MarineTraffic.com. Hours later, however, it stopped and changed course toward Oman, just before the British navy group declared the hijackers had departed and the vessel was now “safe.”
In an analysis, maritime intelligence firm Dryad Global described the seizure of the Asphalt Princess as the latest Iranian response to outside pressures, economic conflicts and other grievances.
“Iran has consistently shown that in conducting this kind of operation, it is calculated in doing so, both by targeting vessels directly connected with ongoing disputes and (vessels) operating within the ‘grey space’ of legitimacy,” which may be involved in illicit trade, Dryad Global said.
The owner of the Asphalt Princess, listed as Emirati free zone-based Glory International, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The US military’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet and the British Defense Ministry also did not respond to requests for comment. The Emirati government did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
The Gulf of Oman sits near the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf through which a fifth of all traded oil passes. Fujairah, on the UAE’s eastern coast, is a main port in the region for ships to take on new oil cargo, pick up supplies or trade out crew.
For the past two years, after then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from Iran’s nuclear deal and imposed crushing sanctions, the waters off Fujairah have witnessed a series of explosions and hijackings. The US Navy has blamed Iran for a series of limpet mine attacks on vessels that damaged tankers.
In the summer of 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops detained a British-flagged tanker, the Stena Impero, near the Strait of Hormuz. Last year, an oil tanker sought by the US for allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked off the Emirati coast and later ended up in Iran, though Tehran never acknowledged the incident.
And in January, armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops stormed a South Korean tanker and forced the ship to change course and travel to Iran. While Iran claimed it detained the ship over pollution concerns, it appeared to link the seizure to negotiations over billions of dollars in Iranian assets frozen in South Korean banks.

Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter

Updated 04 August 2021

Iran court sentences German woman to decade in jail: daughter

  • Taghavi was arrested at her Tehran apartment on Oct. 16 after years fighting for human rights in Iran
  • Taghavi suffers from pre-existing conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes

BERLIN: A German-Iranian woman held in Iran has been given a decade-long jail term by an Iran court for participating in an outlawed group, her daughter said Wednesday.

Nahid Taghavi, 66, was given “ten years for membership in an illegal group” and “eight months for propaganda against the regime,” said her daughter Mariam Claren.

Taghavi was arrested at her Tehran apartment on Oct. 16 after years fighting for human rights in Iran, in particular for women’s rights and freedom of expression, according to the rights group IGFM.

According to Claren, Taghavi has been held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where she contracted Covid-19 last month.

Claren has repeatedly flagged up warnings about her mother’s health, saying that she suffers from pre-existing conditions including high blood pressure and diabetes.

Germany’s foreign ministry said in October that it was aware of the arrest of a German-Iranian woman in Iran, but did not name the detained citizen.

Frank Schwabe, who is the spokesman on human rights issues for the Social Democrats, condemned the verdict.

“The charges are baseless and the verdict a farce,” he wrote on Twitter.


International conference on Lebanon raises over $357 million

Updated 04 August 2021

International conference on Lebanon raises over $357 million

  • The Aug. 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut port killed at least 214 people
  • About 40 heads of state and government, diplomats and heads of international organizations have taken part in the conference

SAULIEU, France: The French presidency said an international conference on Lebanon has gathered over $357 million in aid required to meet the country’s humanitarian needs, one year after the massive explosion at Beirut’s port.
Wednesday’s virtual conference, co-hosted by France and the United Nations, was meant to show support for the Lebanese people, French President Emmanuel Macron said.
France will provide 100 million euros ($118.6 million) in the coming months, Macron said. Paris will also send 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines for the country.
President Joe Biden, who addressed the conference in a video message, pledged to give $100 million in new humanitarian assistance.
About 40 heads of state and government, diplomats and heads of international organizations have taken part in the conference, according to Macron’s office. Participants included Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, King Abdullah II of Jordan and European Council President Charles Michel.
Lebanon’s current humanitarian needs have been estimated by the UN to be at least $357 million. Aid will focus on food, schools, the health sector and clean water supply, Macron’s office said.
Wednesday’s event was also meant to mount pressure on Lebanese leaders to form a new government able to implement reforms and start rebuilding the country.
Lebanon is going through the worst economic and financial crisis of its modern history, and a political stalemate that has kept the country without a functioning government for a full year.
Biden said that “no amount of outside assistance will ever be enough, if Lebanon’s own leaders do not commit to do the hard but necessary work of reforming the economy and combating corruption. That’s essential, and has to start now.”
Lebanese politicians have only made the situation ”worse by placing their individual and political interests above the Lebanese people’s interests,” Macron criticized. “Lebanon definitely deserves better.”
Macron said that humanitarian aid promised Wednesday will be unconditional.
However, he warned that “there will be no blank check to the Lebanese political system because it is defaulting. ... Lebanese leaders seem to opt for the deterioration (of the situation). I regret it. I think it’s a historical and moral error.”
Michel, the European Council President, stressed that the EU adopted a few days ago a “sanctions framework ... to target those in Lebanon who obstruct efforts to end the political crisis. We obviously hope that we will not be obliged to activate it.”
Macron, who went to Beirut twice since the explosion at the port, has led international efforts to try to help the former French protectorate by providing emergency aid. Last year’s conference on Lebanon, organized in the wake of the explosion, raised about 280 million euros ($332 million).
According to the UN, over half of Lebanese people now live in poverty, one in three Lebanese suffer from food insecurity and nearly 4 million people are at risk of not accessing safe water.


Rocket fire from Lebanon prompts Israeli shelling: Army

Updated 04 August 2021

Rocket fire from Lebanon prompts Israeli shelling: Army

  • The military said in a statement the alerts sounded in at least three communities near the border with Lebanon

JERUSALEM: Rocket fire from Lebanon hit northern Israel on Wednesday prompting retaliatory shelling, the army said, as tensions rise between Israel and arch foe Iran.

“Three rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israeli territory,” the army said in a statement, adding that one had fallen short of the border.

“In response... artillery forces fired into Lebanese territory.”

Rocket warning sirens sounded in northern Israel near the Lebanese border, the Israeli military said.

There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties. The military said in a statement the alerts sounded in at least three communities near the border with Lebanon.

The border has been mostly quiet since Israel fought a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas, who have sway in southern Lebanon and advanced rockets.

But small Palestinian factions in Lebanon have fired sporadically on Israel in the past, and two rockets were launched at Israel on July 20, causing no damage or injuries. Israel responded to that incident with artillery fire.

 


Pope Francis back to full-time work with call for Lebanon aid

Updated 04 August 2021

Pope Francis back to full-time work with call for Lebanon aid

  • ‘Today I appeal to the international community to help Lebanon along the path to resurrection through concrete gestures, not just words’

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis returned to work full-time on Wednesday following a colon operation, urging the international community to help a struggling Lebanon.
The 84-year-old took time to bless children and pose for selfies in the Vatican at the weekly general audience one month to the day after the delicate operation, which saw him hospitalized for over a week.
“Today I appeal to the international community to help Lebanon along the path to resurrection through concrete gestures, not just words,” Francis said.
Lebanon was Wednesday marking a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged Beirut, killing at least 214 people in its worst peace-time disaster, when the country’s economy was already in tatters.
The spiralling economic crisis has been branded by the World Bank as one of the planet’s worst since the mid-19th century. Lebanon has also had to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
Francis said he hoped an international conference co-hosted by France and the UN on the day of the anniversary to raise humanitarian aid proves “productive.”
According to the Vatican News portal, the general audience marked the resumption of normal activities for the pope, who underwent planned surgery for inflammation of the colon at Rome’s Gemelli University Hospital on July 4.
Francis, who had previously been in fairly good health, had been taking it easy since the operation although he led the Sunday Angelus prayers both from hospital and from the Vatican window on his return.

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