in Tunisia, authorities confronted with distrust of residents

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A woman wears a protective mask in Tunis, March 4, 2020.
A woman wears a protective mask in Tunis, March 4, 2020. Zoubeir Souissi / REUTERS

At the central market in Tunis, one of the nerve centers of the city center, the morning excitement is less intense than usual. “There have been fewer people in recent days, even in supermarkets”, says Sabiha Hafaiedh, a 56-year-old housewife who came to do her shopping. Since the appearance of new cases of coronavirus from France and Italy, questions and concern have grown in Tunisia. So far, according to official data, the country has recorded seven cases and no deaths.

The government announced a battery of measures on Monday, March 9, such as the advancement of school vacations or the suspension of part of air and maritime communications with Italy. The following day, 30 Italian tourists were sent home. Several municipalities, including Tunis, have issued municipal by-laws banning shisha in cafes and recommending the use of plastic cups. Officials chain television sets to do prevention and try to reassure. With results for the moment very uncertain.

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Sami, a cheese maker from the central market, mechanically rubs his hands with his disinfectant gel. “I am careful here and at home, but I feel that we do not have enough information. It’s not clear what’s going on, if the people in quarantine really respect isolation. Especially with the last case of the Frenchman who left the hospital “, he says.

Panic on a Tunisair flight

On Monday, an 83-year-old French national who tested positive for coronavirus and hospitalized in the city of Bizerte, indeed left the establishment and took a flight to Strasbourg on the Tunisair airline, creating panic among passengers. Another case thwarted the authorities, that of a man who had returned from Italy two weeks ago, tested positive after having circulated freely during this period.

In response, the Ministry of Health has sounded the alarm about the dangers of violating the indications of confinement. In the Gafsa region, where the first case had been detected, the general directorate of health decided to prosecute the offenders.

Read also Coronavirus: between trust and containment, how Africa is blocking the epidemic

“We are doing our best, but people have to be responsible and respect the hygiene and isolation measures recommended. We know that we have limited means in case of propagation, so we do everything to anticipate, says Chokri Hammouda, the director general of basic health care at the Ministry of Health. It is not only the health sector which must be mobilized, the ministry of transport must also take care of the cleaning of public transport, the ministry of trade must regulate the skyrocketing prices… It is necessary that we take in hand the phenomenon all together to avoid the crisis. ”

According to the head of government, Elyes Fakhfakh, growth could drop by 0.5% due to the economic impact of the coronavirus.

“There are people who profit from it”

At the central market, Fayçal Chelbi, a spice merchant, sells red garlic 19.80 dinars per kilo (around 6 euros) instead of the usual 14 dinars. Garlic is rumored to be effective against coronavirus, like other grandmother remedies that have been declared ineffective by the medical profession. A little further, in his pharmacy, Khaled Jazi compares the costs of FFP2 masks, which went from 6 to 20 dinars in a few weeks. “It’s a bit of a panic since the virus’s rapid spread in Italy. Unfortunately, there are people who profit from it ”, laments the trader.

Failure to take government instructions into account is partly linked to a lack of citizens’ confidence in their leaders. This was undermined by years of political blockages, sanctioned during the last legislative and presidential elections. Some commentators believe that the government is not going far enough to fight the epidemic.

“We have the impression that it is public opinion that guides political decisions on the epidemic and not vice versa. This feeling is reinforced by the gap between the communication of the medical profession and scientific experts, who demand more drastic measures, and the action of politicians, who take decisions according to the economic impact “, observes Emna El Hammi, scientific and strategic consultant in the health field.

In Sousse, where three patients are hospitalized, Wissem Hachfi, professor of infectious diseases and head of the coronavirus crisis cell at CHU Farhat-Hached, tries to reassure: “We are all worried, but we must also see that we were able to take care of the patients and execute an action plan on which we had worked well before the arrival of the first cases. There is a mixture of fear and denial among the population, but she trusts the doctors, you have to bet on it. “

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