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

The rapidly deteriorating health condition has exacerbated Tunisia’s political and economic difficulties, as the aggressive delta variant of the coronavirus is circulating in a country with low vaccination rates and the highest Covid-19 mortality rate in the Arab world.

The World Health Organization said that Tunisia is now facing an “extremely worrying” surge in cases after the infection was brought under control last year. Only 7% of the population in this North African country has been fully vaccinated. Due to chaos in hospitals and vaccination centers across the country, the president put the military in charge of the pandemic later on Wednesday.

The intensive care unit is almost full, and some hospitals are experiencing oxygen shortages, which is crucial for Covid-19 patients who have difficulty breathing. Last week, the daily death toll exceeded 200, which is a record for this North African country with a population of 12 million. Nearly 18,000 people All are dead.

Although Tunisia is regarded as the only democratic country Arab countries that resisted the dictatorship in 2011, The deteriorating health condition is testing the limits of the political system torn apart by disputes between the president, prime minister, and speaker.

President Kais Saied’s decision was made a day after Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi fired the Minister of Health after the chaos of insufficient supply at the vaccination center. This move was seen as an escalation of the power struggle between the two and aggravated Tunisia’s economic problems.

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

“This is the deepening of the political crisis and the polarization between the two,” said Yusuf Sharif, a political analyst and head of the Tunisian Colombia Global Center.

He pointed out that Tunisian citizens did not “take masks and avoid family gatherings seriously”, but said that the government “has not prepared for the influx of large numbers of cases, thus improperly handling the health crisis.”

Sharif added: “In general, the new crown virus is not the top priority of the president, the government, and the speaker.” “The three of them have been fighting daily political quarrels instead of resolving crises.”

Mechichi accused the Minister of Health of making “populist” and “criminal” decisions after tens of thousands of people appeared in 29 new vaccination centers but found that there were not enough vaccines available. Fatima, a 33-year-old science professor, waited in line for her chance outside a sports center in Marsa. “I’m scared,” she said. “This is the worst wave. The health system is in trouble, and the hospital doesn’t even have oxygen.”

According to the WHO, as many as 9,500 cases are reported every day, and “Delta variants are spreading widely.” Government health spokesperson Jalila Ben Khalil (Jalila Ben Khalil) said that the variant accounted for more than 75% of Covid-19 patients admitted to hospital for lung problems.

New deaths due to Covid-19 in Tunisia, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union; 7-day rolling average of the number of new deaths (per 100,000)

Fetti Balti, a doctor at a hospital in northern Tunisia, said the true number may be much higher than the reported number due to pressure to save the test. He added: “We only test people who need medical care or have other symptoms.”

The political situation will only exacerbate the crisis. In recent years, a series of weak governments have struggled to provide effective leadership or revitalize a dying economy.A populist elected in 2019 and has rejected 11 points since January Minister elected by Mechhi, They fired those who were deemed to have been appointed by Said.

Analysts say that the confrontation between the three leaders and the fierce differences between rival factions sometimes escalate into violent quarrels in parliament, which weakens trust in the political system.

“There is not even a government that can start,” said the owner of a restaurant in La Marsa near Tunisia. “They made a decision in the morning and made a change in the afternoon. They decided to quarantine and did not really implement it on the ground.”

The pandemic has also worsened the economic situation of a heavily indebted country, where it often happens Young people’s protest broke out Angry at poverty and high unemployment.

According to data from the International Monetary Fund, the economy contracted by 8.8% last year. Although the economy is expected to grow by 3.8% in 2021, it will not return to pre-pandemic levels this year. Due to travel restrictions in Europe and the United Kingdom, Tunisia’s tourism industry has been hit hard.

During the blockade by the Tunisian authorities, a man lies on an almost deserted beach in Tunisia
The coronavirus crisis has damaged Tunisia’s once thriving tourism industry © Fethi Belaidi/AFP/Getty

James Swanston, an economist at the London-based consulting firm Capital Investment Macros, said that foreign exchange losses could weaken the Tunisian dinar, “causing inflation risks and increasing the cost of living.” He said Tunisia may find it difficult to repay its debts. “There is no government in place… means you can’t have the motivation to deal with the economic crisis,” he added.

Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a US$4 billion loan are seen as helping the government’s excessively strained fiscal situation, and its debt is close to 90% of GDP.

Analysts said that in the face of regular civil unrest, the government found it difficult to take necessary measures to limit spending, such as freezing public sector wages, which accounted for 17.6% of GDP. “At the best of times, fiscal consolidation measures are not welcome,” 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, Sharif said the situation may improve in the coming weeks.

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

The surge in the number of infections has prompted more people to wear masks. Yusser is a saleswoman in a clothing store. When a customer comes in, she pulls up her clothes. “People have become scared,” she said. “Some patients don’t even show symptoms.”

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