Delta variant worsens crisis for fragile Tunisian democracy

A rapidly deteriorating health situation has compounded Tunisia’s political and economic woes as the aggressive Delta strain of coronavirus takes hold in a country with low vaccination rates and the highest Covid-19 death rate in the Arab world.

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

The intensive care units are almost full and some hospitals are suffering from oxygen deprivation, which is crucial for Covid-19 patients who have breathing difficulties. Last week, the daily death toll surpassed 200 – a record for the North African country of 12 million people, where almost 18,000 people already dead in total.

While Tunisia is seen as the only democracy among Arab countries that revolted against the dictatorship in 2011 2011, the deteriorating health situation is setting the limits of a political system torn apart by disputes between the President, Prime Minister and Speaker of Parliament.

President Kais Saied’s decision came a day after Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi fired the health minister over chaotic scenes at substandard 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 polarization between the two men,” said Youssef Cherif, a political analyst who heads the Columbia Global Center in Tunis.

Pointing out that Tunisian citizens were “not serious about wearing masks and avoiding family gatherings”, he said the government “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,” Cherif added. “The three of them continued to fight their daily political quarrels instead of dealing with 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 to find out there weren’t enough vaccines to go around. Fatima, a 33-year-old science professor, queued in front of a sports center in the city of Marsa to get a chance. “I’m scared,” she said. “This is the worst wave. The health system is in trouble and hospitals don’t even have oxygen.”

As many as 9,500 cases are reported daily, the WHO said, “with a wide distribution of the Delta variant”. Jalila Ben Khalil, a government spokeswoman on health, said the variant was responsible for more than 75 percent of Covid-19 patients hospitalized with lung problems.

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

The actual numbers are likely to be much higher than the reported ones, due to pressure to save tests, said Fethi Balti, a doctor at a hospital in northern Tunisia. “We only test those who need medical attention or have other symptoms,” he added.

The political situation has only exacerbated the crisis. In recent years, a succession of weak governments has struggled to provide effective leadership or revive a moribund economy. Saied, a populist elected in 2019, has refused to swear in 11 since January ministers selected by Meshishi, who had fired those seen as appointees of Saied.

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

“There isn’t even a government to begin with,” says a restaurant owner in La Marsa, near Tunis. “They make a decision in the morning and reverse it in the afternoon. They decide on a quarantine and don’t actually carry it out on the ground.”

The pandemic has also worsened the economic situation in a heavily indebted country, where often outbursts of protests by young people angry about poverty and high unemployment.

According to the IMF, the economy shrank by 8.8 percent last year and despite forecasts of 3.8 percent growth in 2021, it will not recover this year to pre-pandemic levels. The tourism industry in Tunisia has been decimated due to travel restrictions in Europe and the UK.

A man lies on a nearly deserted beach in Tunis during a lockdown imposed by Tunisian authorities
The coronavirus crisis has wreaked havoc on Tunisia’s once thriving tourism industry © Fethi Belaidi/AFP/Getty

James Swanston, an economist at London-based consultancy Capital Economics, said currency losses could weaken the Tunisian dinar “with inflation risk and a higher cost of living”. Tunisia could struggle to meet its debt payments, he said. “No government in place . . . means you can’t have momentum to deal with the economic crisis,” he added.

Negotiations with the IMF on a $4 billion loan considered crucial to help the government’s overstretched finances have stalled as debt spirals toward 90 percent of gross domestic product.

Faced with regular outbreaks of civil unrest, the government has found it difficult to take necessary measures to curb spending, such as a freeze on public sector wages, which account for 17.6 percent of GDP, analysts say. . “Fiscal consolidation measures are unpopular at the best of times,” Swanston added.

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

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

The increase in infections has led to more people wearing face masks. Yusser, a saleswoman at a clothing store, pulled hers up as customers walked in. “People have become scared,” she says. “Some patients don’t even show symptoms.”

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