The Delta variant deepens the crisis for Tunisia’s fragile democracy

A rapidly deteriorating health situation has added to Tunisia’s political and economic troubles as the aggressive Delta variant of coronavirus engages in a country with low vaccinations and the highest Covid-19 death rate in the Arab world.

The World Health Organization said that after keeping the infections under control last year, Tunisia was now facing an “extremely worrying” increase in cases. Only 7 percent of the North African country’s population is fully vaccinated. With chaotic scenes in hospitals and vaccination centers across the country, the president late Wednesday put the army in charge of the pandemic response.

Intensive care units are almost full with some hospitals experiencing oxygen deficiencies, which is crucial for Covid-19 patients suffering from breathing difficulties. Last week, the number of daily deaths exceeded 200 – a record for the North African country of 12 million people, where almost 18,000 people in all they are already dead.

While Tunisia is seen as the only democracy among them Arab countries, which rose up against the dictatorship in 2011, the deteriorating health situation proves the limits of a political system torn apart by quarrels between the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament.

President Kais Saied’s decision came a day after Hichem Mechichi, the prime minister, fired the health minister after chaotic scenes at the underlying vaccination centers. The move is seen as an escalation of a power struggle between the couple that has exacerbated Tunisia’s economic problems.

Qatari soldiers in a field hospital donated by the Gulf state for Covid patients in Ben Arous, Tunisia © Jihed Abidellaoui / Reuters

“This is a deepening of the political crisis and the polarization between the two men,” said Youssef Cherif, political analyst who is head of the Columbia Global Center in Tunis.

While noting that Tunisian citizens have not been “serious about wearing masks and avoiding family reunions”, he said the government has “mismanaged the health crisis by not being prepared for the influx of cases”. “.

“Covid in general has not been the first priority of the president, the government and the speaker,” adds Cherif. “All three continue to fight their daily political struggles rather than face the crisis.”

Mechichi accused the health minister of making “populist” and “criminal” decisions after tens of thousands of people showed up at 29 new vaccination centers only to discover that there were not enough vaccines to circulate. Fatima, a 33-year-old science professor, lined up outside a sports center in the city of Marsa to take a hit. “I’m scared,” he said. “This is the worst wave.” The health system is in difficulty and hospitals do not have enough oxygen. “

As many as 9,500 cases are reported each day, the WHO said, “with a wide circulation of the Delta variant.” Jalila Ben Khalil, a government health spokeswoman, said the variant counts more than 75 per cent of Covid-19 patients admitted to hospital with lung problems.

Nine deaths attributed to Covid-19 in Tunisia, US, UK and EU;  seven-day rotating average of nine deaths (per 100,000 people)

Fethi Balti, a doctor at a hospital in northern Tunisia, said Fethi Balti, a doctor at a hospital, would have to assume that the true figures are much higher than those reported. “We try only those who need medical attention or who have other symptoms,” he added.

The political situation has only aggravated the crisis. In recent years, a succession of weak governments has struggled to provide effective leadership or strengthen the dying economy. Saied, an elected populist in 2019, has since refused to take the oath of office in January ministers selected by Meshishi, who had dismissed those seen as Saied nominees.

The conflict between the three leaders, in addition to bitter disagreements between rival factions that have sometimes escalated into violent struggles in parliament, has diminished confidence in the political system, analysts say.

“There is no government to begin with,” said a restaurant owner in La Marsa, near Tunis. “They make a decision in the morning and turn it down in the afternoon. They decide to quarantine it and don’t really put it down. “

The pandemic has also aggravated the economic situation in a highly indebted country, where there are frequent eruptions of protest from the youth angry at poverty and high unemployment.

The economy contracted 8.8 percent last year, according to the IMF, and despite forecasts of 3.8 percent growth in 2021, it will not recover to its pre-pandemic level. ‘year. Tunisia’s tourism industry has been decimated due to travel restrictions in Europe and the UK.

A man is lying on an almost deserted beach in Tunis during the lockout was imposed by Tunisian authorities
Coronavirus crisis has damaged Tunisia’s growing tourism industry © Fethi Belaidi / AFP / Getty

James Swanston, economist for the London Capital Economics consultancy, said foreign currency losses could weaken the Tunisian dinar “causing a risk of inflation and increasing the cost of living.” Tunisia could struggle to meet its debt repayments, he said. “There is no government in the square.” . . it means you can’t have momentum to deal with the economic crisis, ”he added.

Negotiations with the IMF for a $ 4 billion loan considered crucial to help the government’s overly tense finances have stalled as its debt moves toward 90 percent of gross domestic product.

Faced with regular outbreaks of civil unrest, the government has found it difficult to put in place the necessary measures to limit spending, such as a freeze on public sector wages which account for 17.6 percent of GDP, they say. the analysts. “Fiscal consolidation measures are not popular in the best of times,” Swanston adds.

With the arrival of vaccines and medical supplies donated by countries including China, France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates, Cherif said the situation will improve in the coming weeks.

But while the army “dragged into politics indirectly” could have a positive impact on the health situation, he added, it could have a “negative impact on the future of Tunisia as a democracy.”

The growth of infections has encouraged more people to wear masks. Yusser, a saleswoman in a clothing store, pulled the soybean when customers came in. “People are scared,” he said. “Some of the patients show no symptoms at all.”

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