Why Tunisians were caught in the eye of the coronavirus storm

Tunisians celebrated on July 25 after President Kais Saied announced the dismissal of the country’s prime minister following nationwide protests. (AFP)
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Updated 02 August 2021

Why Tunisians were caught in the eye of the coronavirus storm

  • Ennahda party at the receiving end of anger over perceived government mismanagement of pandemic
  • Slow vaccine rollout, lax observance of safety protocols and delta variant seen as contributing factors

DUBAI: Hasna Worshafani, a Dubai-based paralegal, had not been able to visit her parents in their native Tunisia for more than a year owing to COVID-19 air travel restrictions.

But just as the curbs began to be lifted, the North African country was struck by a devastating new wave of virus cases, forcing her to postpone her trip once again.

“The plan was to spend Eid Al-Adha with my parents, but because the situation back home is not okay, and there is a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases, I decided to put travel plans on hold until things settled a little,” Worshafani, a mother of two children, told Arab News.

Tunisia is among five African states in the throes of a devastating third wave of COVID-19 infections. The country, with a population of 11.69 million, has reported more than 18,600 deaths since the pandemic was declared in March last year.

On Sunday, hundreds of protesters rallied in the capital, Tunis, and other cities demanding the government’s resignation in the face of pandemic-linked economic and political troubles. By the end of the day, President Kais Saied had announced the suspension of parliament and the dismissal of Hichem Mechichi from the post of prime minister.

For months, as political squabbling paralyzed the government, hospitals struggled with oxygen shortages and a lack of staff and ICU beds, prompting Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France and Egypt among other countries to send emergency medical supplies and vaccine doses to Tunisia.

Authorities have also failed to implement a speedy vaccine rollout. Fewer than a million people — about eight percent of the population — have been fully vaccinated, even as the caseload has surged to one of the highest in Africa.

While there are several reasons for the uptick in COVID-19 cases, many Tunisians hold the Islamist Ennahda — the largest party in parliament — responsible for the deteriorating economic, social and health conditions since its entry into power in 2019.

Analysts say the shibboleths of democracy and pluralism that roll off the Islamists’ lips during election season may not assuage the public’s fears and anxieties stemming from the collapse of the health system and the parlous state of the economy.

One Tunisian expat said that lockdowns and travel bans became ‘unbearable for many people.’ (AFP)

Pointing to the scenes of jubilation that greeted the presidential announcement on Sunday night and the reports of attempts to storm Ennahda offices in multiple cities, the analysts say Tunisia’s Islamists will wait to see which way the political wind is blowing before flexing their muscles. In any case, the erosion of public support for democracy due to mass unemployment and declining state services is a fact that cannot be ignored.

Although Ennahda, along with leftists, supported Saied in the 2019 presidential election, their relations began to sour since the start of the pandemic. A prolonged deadlock between the president, the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament was seen as a major reason behind the government’s bungled response to the latest COVID-19 wave.

Mechichi, who was appointed head of government exactly one year ago, had overseen an unruly cabinet rocked by ministerial resignations and tensions with President Saied. As soaring COVID-19 cases swamped Tunisia’s hospitals, he sacked the health minister this month. But the move was seen by many as a case of too little too late.

None of this is to say politicians are solely to blame for the COVID-19 catastrophe in Tunisia. Similar to much of the world in the spring of 2020, the country implemented a full lockdown. The strategy proved extremely effective, with Tunisia reporting zero cases for a period of 40 days. But when the borders were reopened in June and tourists began to return, cases suddenly shot up.

Bureaucrats in much of North Africa failed to anticipate the impact of at least three factors when they decided to relax lockdowns or open up borders. The first is the high transmissibility of the delta variant, thought to have originated in India. The second is dwindling compliance with hygiene and social-distancing measures, and the third is the extremely low rate of vaccination.

“Different countries have different epidemiological situations, so we can’t generalize all of North Africa,” Abdinasir Abubakar, head of the Infectious Hazard Management Unit at the WHO regional office in Cairo, told Arab News.

He said some countries “invested so much in vaccination and this is paying off,” while others focused on enforcing public health measures to slow the spread of the virus.

Public anger over the lax government response to post-revolution security threats has haunted the ruling Ennahda party. (AFP)

However, poor compliance has been widely observed in Tunisia, contributing to a surge in cases of the delta variant. “That is actually what is driving the new surge of cases in North Africa, as well as other countries in the region,” Abubakar said.

To bring down the caseload, Abubakar wants the public to adhere to government restrictions on movement and mass gatherings.

“Governments need to reinforce restrictions. But, most importantly, people need to understand the reason why governments are imposing restrictions: Because of safety, health, and protection,” he said.

“People need to comply and respect that. They need to wear masks. They need to respect physical distancing. They need to promote handwashing and cleaning and they need to get vaccinated. They need to avoid any big social gatherings and travel.”

Abubakar is confident the situation in Tunisia and other African countries can be brought under control. For now, he is more concerned about the shortage of oxygen across the region.

“Literally, everywhere we are going through this. People are dying simply because there is not enough oxygen. We have never prioritized it and now this is something we need to do, and it is very easy to do as long as there is commitment and resources,” he said.

Worshafani, the Tunisian expat in Dubai, thinks the situation has deteriorated in her home country for one simple reason: Lockdowns and travel bans had become unbearable for many households.

“Authorities can’t impose a full lockdown for long, because the economy can’t take such a hit after peoples’ lives were badly affected by the lockdowns last year,” she said.

“The cost of living in Tunisia has steadily increased during the past 10 years. People have lost patience.”

Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi

East Libya forces say 2 helicopters crashed, killing 2

Updated 26 sec ago

East Libya forces say 2 helicopters crashed, killing 2

  • The self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces said the helicopters collided in the air over the village of Msus
  • The crash came as they have been battling Chadian fighters in Libya’s southern areas on the border with Chad
CAIRO: Forces loyal to a powerful Libyan commander said two military planes crashed on Sunday over a village in eastern Libya, killing at least two officers.
The self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces, led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar, said the helicopters collided in the air over the village of Msus, 130 kilometers (81 miles) southeast of the city of Benghazi.
A two-officer crew, including Brig. Gen. Bouzied Al-Barrasi, was killed in the crash, while the second helicopter crew survived, the forces said in a brief statement. It did not give the cause of the crash and said the helicopters were on a military mission.
Mohammad Younes Menfi, head of Libya’s Presidential Council, mourned the two officers.
Haftar’s forces control eastern and most of southern Libya. The crash came as they have been battling Chadian fighters in Libya’s southern areas on the border with Chad.
The clashes erupted last week and could further destabilize the wider Sahel region, after Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno was killed in April in battels between his government and Chadian rebels.

Syria’s defense chief meets Jordan’s army commander in Amman

Updated 19 September 2021

Syria’s defense chief meets Jordan’s army commander in Amman

  • Meeting was “to increase coordination in the field of border security”: Hala Akhbar news site
  • Petra said Huneiti and Ayoub discussed border situation in southern Syria and fighting terrorism

AMMAN: Syria’s defense minister met Sunday with Jordan’s army chief in Amman after after Syrian troops captured several rebel-held areas near Jordan’s border, state media reported.
The Hala Akhbar news site, which is linked to Jordan’s military, reported that the meeting between Jordanian Gen. Yousef Huneiti and Syrian Gen. Ali Ayoub was “to increase coordination in the field of border security to serve the interests of the two brotherly countries.”
The recent push by Syrian troops in the country’s south is the biggest since government forces captured wide areas along the border in 2018, including the Nassib border crossing.
The crossing with Jordan was reopened in 2018, months after it fell under Syrian government control. Syrian rebels had seized the site in 2015, severing a lifeline for the government in Damascus and disrupting a major trade route linking Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the oil-rich Gulf countries.
Ayoub’s visit came nearly two weeks after Syrian forces entered the rebel-held district of the volatile southern city of Daraa as part of a truce negotiated by Russia to end weeks of fighting. In the days that followed, Syrian troops captured rebel-held parts of several villages near Daraa.
The latest push by Syrian troops brings all parts of southern Syria under full government control.
Petra, Jordan’s state news agency, said Huneiti and Ayoub discussed border security, the situation in southern Syria, fighting terrorism and confronting narcotics smuggling.
Syrian state TV said the visit came at the invitation of Jordan’s army commander, adding that Ayoub was accompanied by top army officers. It said the talks focused on “fighting terrorism and border control.”
Jordan is a close Western ally and has long been seen as an island of stability in the turbulent Mideast. The kingdom hosts more than 650,000 Syrian refugees.
Earlier this month, ministers from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt said after meeting in Amman that Egyptian natural gas should reach Lebanon through Jordan and Syria as soon as next month, after maintenance of pipelines and the review of a deal interrupted 10 years ago.


TankerTrackers says third tanker carrying fuel to Lebanon underway

Updated 19 September 2021

TankerTrackers says third tanker carrying fuel to Lebanon underway

  • The first tanker ship carried the fuel to Syria and from there it was taken into Lebanon on tanker trucks on Thursday
  • Mikati said on Friday the Iranian fuel shipments constitute a breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty

DUBAI: A third tanker has sailed from Iran carrying Iranian fuel for distribution in Lebanon, TankerTrackers.com reported on Twitter on Sunday.
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Friday the Iranian fuel shipments, imported by the Hezbollah movement, constitute a breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
The Iran-aligned group says the shipments should ease a crippling energy crisis in Lebanon.
The first tanker ship carried the fuel to Syria and from there it was taken into Lebanon on tanker trucks on Thursday.
Both Syria and Iran are under US sanctions.

Iran museums reopen after year-long COVID-19 break

Updated 19 September 2021

Iran museums reopen after year-long COVID-19 break

  • A country with a millennia-long history, Iran has an abundance of 746 museums
  • Iran’s museums attracted more than 21 million visitors in the year before the outbreak of COVID-19

TEHRAN: Iran reopened museums in Tehran and other cities Sunday after a more than year-long closure because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Museums in Tehran and other large cities that are no longer red-coded, meaning the risk of contracting the virus was very high, reopened on Sunday,” the director of Iran’s museums, Mohammad-Reza Kargar, said.
“Tourists and visitors are welcome to return while observing (sanitary) measures.”
A country with a millennia-long history, Iran has an abundance of 746 museums, including 170 in the capital.
“We are absolutely delighted, and we think the people are too because they were fed up with staying home, and visiting museums improves their mood,” Kargar said in his tourism and heritage ministry office.
“We have safety protocols in place of course, and the number of visitors will be dependent on the space at our sites so the public stays safe and healthy.”
Kargar said only students, researchers and staff were allowed into museums during the past 14 months.
Iran’s museums attracted more than 21 million visitors in the year before the outbreak of COVID-19 that forced museums to close in May 2020.
On Sunday, the National Museum of Iran with its magnificent collection of treasures dating back to the Bronze and Iron ages was still deserted.
“We have to wait for the news to spread and schools to reopen for people to come back,” explained Firouzeh Sepidnameh, head of the museum’s pre-Islamic collections.
Iran, the worst-hit country in the Middle East, has confirmed more than 5.4 million cases of coronavirus, including 117,000 deaths, according to figures issued Sunday by the health ministry.
Out of a population of 83 million, 29 million Iranians have received a first dose of vaccination and almost 14 million have been fully vaccinated against the virus.

Former Algerian president Bouteflika given state funeral

Updated 19 September 2021

Former Algerian president Bouteflika given state funeral

  • Bouteflika passed away on Friday aged 84, having lived as a recluse since he was forced from power
  • State television announced that Bouteflika would be laid to rest at El-Alia cemetery, east of Algiers

ALGIERS: Former Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, ousted in 2019 after mass protests, was given a state funeral on Sunday attended by senior officials but received little of the attention given to such occasions in the past.
Bouteflika died on Friday, aged 84. An armoured vehicle decked with flowers pulled his coffin, covered with the national flag, on a gun carriage from his home in Zeralda, west of the capital, to the Al-Alia cemetery in Algiers where five of his predecessors are buried.
Bouteflika was first elected in 1999, and is widely credited with a national reconciliation policy that restored peace after a war with armed Islamists in the 1990s killed an estimated 200,000 people.
But many Algerians blame him for the economic stagnation of his latter years in power, when he was rarely seen in public after suffering a stroke, and widespread corruption led to the looting of tens of billions of dollars from a state that depends heavily on its large gas and oil reserves.
He stepped down in April 2019 after mass demonstrations to reject his plan to seek a fifth term, and demand political and economic reforms.
As well as Bouteflika's family, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who laid a wreath of flowers on the tomb, and many ministers of the current government and military officers, including army chief of staff Lieutenant-General Said Chenegriha, were among the mourners.

Attendees also included foreign diplomats in Algiers.
The French presidency on Sunday described Bouteflika as "a major figure in the contemporary history of Algeria", adding that he embodied the foreign policy of Algeria.
"The President of the Republic sends his condolences to the Algerian people and remains committed to developing close relations of esteem and friendship between the French people and Algerian people," the French presidency said in a statement.
But state media gave little attention to the funeral, and state television did not broadcast live pictures of the burial ceremony, as it has the funerals of past presidents. It later showed recorded footage.
Until 2014, Bouteflika was able to use the export earnings from high energy prices to pay off foreign debt and keep spending on subsidies at high levels to avoid social unrest.
"The years of Bouteflika's rule were a good period. He accomplished major projects, rid the country of foreign debt and brought back peace," said schoolteacher Mohamed Hachi.
But his stroke, and a decline in energy prices, ushered in a more difficult time.
"Bouteflika's period witnessed a terrible spread of corruption that the public couldn't see until after he was forced out of power," said state bank employee Djamel Harchi.
Several former senior officials, including prime ministers, ministers and army generals, have been jailed for corruption since Bouteflika resigned in April 2019 under pressure from a protest movement known as Hirak.
Thousands of members of the leaderless movement continued to take to the streets every week until authorities banned rallies because of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
Bouteflika was a fighter in the 1954-1962 war that ended French colonial rule.
He became Algeria's first foreign minister and one of the forces behind the Non-Aligned Movement, which gave a global voice to many of the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.