Tunisia’s Coronavirus Response
By Assia Tej and Thomas Halvorsen
2020 began with a health crisis that unfolded around the globe: an unprecedented pandemic that forced all governments to take swift, decisive, and controversial actions in order to contain its spread. Initially discovered in Wuhan, China, the novel coronavirus is the cause of COVID-19, a serious respiratory disease that due to global transnational norms, spread rapidly across the world. Since its onset, countries around the world have had to make great social, political, and economic sacrifices to contain the spread of the virus. This process seems to be universally turbulent, and Tunisia’s experience is no exception.
In early May the crisis in Tunisia had quickly been declared under control thanks to this small North African country’s quick decisions to ensure the safety of its population.
In mid-March, the Tunisian Government closed its borders, and enacted a strict lockdown halting all activities despite only 16 cases having been reported. Additionally, between March and June, the government oversaw and heavily subsidised the repatriation and quarantine of 25,000 Tunisians. These actions meant significant economic consequences for the country. The country’s successful tourism sector was hit hard, resulting in many hardships including a 400M TND (£112M) loss for the Tunisian flying company Tunisair. Similarly, government subsidies to ensure their citizens safekeeping were an unforeseen financial burden. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MAE) affirmed that despite certain logistical difficulties and heavy financial burdens, Tunisia succeeded in their COVID-19 response, while working to preserve health security in Tunisia in an exceptional international context. (need a citation)
Tunisia’s early actions saw favourable early results. In mid-May, the American television channel MSNBC contrasted Tunisia’s success in containing the spread of the virus with the United States’ failure to do so. This success lead to the government’s decision to reopen the country and resume its tourism economy. On 4 June, the government reopened restaurants, and soon after, the Ministry of Tourism and Handiwork published the “anti-Covid-19 Tunisian tourism health protocol” adopting the motto: ‘Ready and Safe’.
At first, Tunisia’s reopening strategy seemed to be successful, with the Tunisian minister of health announcing 5 days in a row with 0 new cases on 5 June. In the months following, Tunisians celebrated an exceptional return to normal life and freedom with almost every economic sector resuming its usual pace. On 27 June, Tunisia opened its borders, and in early July, the World Travel and Tourism Council awarded Tunisia a ‘Safe Travel Stamp’ classifying it as a Covid-Safe destination.
The Consequences of Reopening
The government’s decision to reopen so much of the country in July lead to frequent gatherings and non-socially distant activities for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, yet for weeks, the number of cases saw insignificant increase.
This was partly due to strict immigration and border regulations. Travelers coming from high-risk ‘red’ areas had to be put under a special government-supervised quarantine forbidding even self-isolation in one’s own home. However, by the end of August, these measures had proven to be inadequate in preventing Tunisia’s increase in daily cases. Between the 27th of June and the 18th of august 1112 news cases and 7 deaths have been reported. Among those cases 671 are local transmissions and only 441 are imported.
For a country that saw such promising early results in their fight against COVID-19, the recent increase in cases due recent reopening policies has many worrying whether they celebrated their victory too soon, and too recklessly.
Tunisia seems to struggle between choosing whether to preserve the safety of their people or the safety of their economy. While their early COVID-19 policies reflected a desire to protect their people at the expense of their economy, their later decisions, some argue, were in a response to protect their economy at the expense of their people. This is an exceptionally hard decision for a country like Tunisia to make, whose economy has been fragile in the best of circumstances.
In response, the government has announced further immigration restrictions, forbidding the entrance of anyone without a negative PCR test, regardless of their country or origin, a decision that shows some increased concern but arguably not enough.
On 20 August the balance sheets declared, 2314 cases, 57 deaths and 1370 recoveries, since the beginning of the pandemic. While compared globally, these numbers are quite impressive, but Tunisia’s recent spike remains concerning, and keeps it from being considered one of the few countries in the world who have succeeded in containing the virus.
Perhaps Tunisia, like the rest of the world, must discover how to protect both its people and its economy while not allowing the attention given to one, detract from the importance of the other.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.