The most lethal and transmissible variant of the Covid-19 virus is taking Tunisia by storm, exacerbating the country’s political and economic difficulties in what is probably the North African country’s worse crisis since the 2011 uprising.
This week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that Tunisia, described as “going through a hard time,” has the highest death rate from Covid-19 in the Arab world and Africa continent.
WHO Tunisia representative Yves Souteyrand said that there are “more than 100 deaths a day” from Covid-19 in Tunisia. In a country of just 12 million people, “that’s really a lot,” he said.
On Monday, the Tunisian authorities said that 144 people had died from Covid-19 complications, down from a record 194 the previous day.
According to the Health Ministry, Tunisia now has a daily infection rate of 8,500 people. Healthcare professionals expect a surge in the death toll by the end of July to rise from the current 189 to 300.
“We are in a catastrophic situation... the health system has collapsed, and we can only find a bed in hospital with great difficulty,” Health Ministry Spokesperson Nisaf Ben Alaya said.
“We are struggling to provide oxygen... and doctors are suffering from unprecedented fatigue,” she said. “The boat is sinking.”
On Thursday, neighbouring Libya announced that it would close its land border and airport with Tunisia for a week due to the rise in coronavirus cases in the country, a government spokesman said.
Tunisian President Kaies Saied has sought the assistance of the country’s army in dealing with the health crisis and overseeing vaccinations. He has also been reaching out to Arab leaders for their support.
Saied said that Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown-Prince Mohamed Ben Zayed had pledged vaccines and medical equipment.
Meanwhile, Tunisian Parliamentary Speaker Rached Al-Ghannouchi spoke with the Qatari and Turkish authorities in a bid to secure medical aid and pledges for vaccine jabs scheduled for this week.
The president’s office said last week that the US had pledged to donate 500,000 vaccination doses to Tunisia. Libya has also pledged to send medical aid.
Algeria sent 100 cubic metres of oxygen to the Tunisian health authorities on Thursday, while Qatar sent a military plane with a field hospital on board, including 200 medics and 100 respirators.
Observers have noted the political dynamics in the swift Arab response to help Tunisia – seen as the only success story of the Arab Spring – while neglecting to assist Lebanon in dealing with its catastrophic economic and health crisis.
This is “vaccine diplomacy at its best, and Europe is absent when needed the most,” commented Tunisian political analyst Youssef Cherif on his Twitter account.
“The Saudis and Emiratis are providing Tunisia with 1.5 million jabs this week. The Algerians are sending 250,000 jabs. Along with the Egyptians, the Qataris and the Turks, they are sending tons of medical equipment to the ravaged country,” he said.
“France, the US and the EU, the expected natural allies, were much slower to react.”
After successfully containing the virus during the first wave last year, Tunisia is now struggling with a rise in infections that medical professionals attribute to the Covid-19 Alpha and Delta variants.
The country imposed a lockdown in some cities starting last week, but it refused to introduce a full national lockdown out of fears it could hurt its already fragile economy further.
Now the entire health sector is failing under the weight of the surge in infections in ways reminiscent of Italy’s tragic struggle with the pandemic at its onset.
Intensive care units in Tunisia’s public hospitals currently have some 4,354 Covid-19 cases. On 6 July, the government declared the “collapse” of the health sector after hospitals reported a 200 per cent occupancy rate by Covid-19 patients and a shortage of oxygen supplies.
The Delta variant is 55 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha variant initially detected in the UK. The WHO says it will become the dominant strain of the coronavirus globally.
There has been a power struggle between the president, the parliamentary speaker and the prime minister in Tunisia over recent months, and this has meant that the nation’s most powerful institutions have not been coordinating efforts or prioritising the pandemic over political disputes.
Zeid Mhirsi, a Tunisian policy strategist for the New York-based Global Health Strategies, said Tunisia’s health crisis was the result of the limited vaccination process that has only covered three to four per cent of the population.
“Social distancing has been a struggle in the absence of large-scale lockdowns,” he said in a telephone interview from New York.
The government’s efforts to mitigate the impact of the economic crisis in the country has caused a far more serious predicament that has spun out of control.
Tunisia has one of the highest percentages of older people in Africa, which is reflected in the high death and infection rates that continue to grow.
“The Delta Covid-19 variant took the government by surprise and overwhelmed the health sector at a time when the thinking was that open air, summer activities were safer,” Mhirsi told Al-Ahram Weekly.
But the kind of Arab solidarity Tunisia had received was unprecedented, he observed.
“I want to congratulate the Arabs coming together for the first time on such large-scale support. The influx of jabs, field hospitals and oxygen will help increase the capacity of the health system and save people from dying in the short term,” he added.
“And hopefully this will prevent a fourth wave of the virus.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.