August 2, 2021

In Tunisia, the government wants to vaccinate more to stop the new epidemic wave

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Vaccination campaign against Covid-19, June 4, 2021, in Tunis.

Vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible. This is the wish of the Tunisian authorities, at a time when a new epidemic wave is emerging. You still have to be able to have what you need. “Tunisia has received for the moment only 1.6 million doses for a population of 12 million [d’habitants]. The country needs vaccines without delay ”, declared the head of government, Hichem Mechichi, on the sidelines of a meeting with the director of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Wednesday, June 9.

Mr. Mechichi had come to Geneva (Switzerland) to plead for a “Better equity” in access to vaccines. A delegation of representatives of the scientific committee for the fight against the coronavirus and the Ministry of Health was also present to negotiate with the World Health Organization (WHO) an agreement on the delivery of 600,000 new doses to the country.

Depending on the vagaries of supply and bilateral commitments made with certain suppliers, in particular Pfizer, but also the Chinese vaccines Sinopharm and Sinovac, and the Russian Sputnik V, Tunis fears of running out of doses between the end of June and the beginning of July. As part of the Covax initiative, the global mechanism for providing vaccines to underprivileged countries, 4.3 million doses are planned by the end of the year for Tunisia. But so far, it has only received 600,000 through this device.

Political and social demonstrations

The sense of urgency is growing as the epidemic gains ground. “The situation is worrying, Tunisia remains the country with the highest declared mortality rate on the African continent”, warns Yves Souteyrand, WHO representative in Tunisia. For several days, the country has recorded a daily average of 70 deaths, 1,500 new cases and a positivity rate that exceeds 20%. In some regions such as Sidi Bouzid, Kairouan, Kasserine or Béja, the authorities have had to partially reconfigure in the face of the saturation of hospital services. In the governorate of Sidi Bouzid, some patients have been dispatched to regional military hospitals and a new Covid unit, with a capacity of thirty beds, is being built as a matter of urgency.

“Unfortunately, what we feared with family gatherings during Eid at the end of May has happened. Despite the confinement for a week, two weeks after the holidays, we had many arrivals in the intensive care units ”, explains Amen Allah Messadi, medical resuscitator at Ben Arous hospital (South) and member of the scientific committee for the fight against the coronavirus. For medical and paramedical staff, he adds, the pace has become “Exhausting”, often more because of a lack of staff than a lack of equipment.

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The Ministry of Health has warned of the risks of a fourth wave with a peak in summer, after a very relative lull in April. Despite the curfew at 10 p.m., the obligation to wear a mask and the gauges required for events and rallies, political and social demonstrations take place every week. “People have become accustomed to the virus and trivialize its danger a little while we should continue to respect barrier gestures”, says Tarek Ben Naceur, regional director of health in Tunis.

Produce and export vaccines

For the authorities, the solution therefore lies in the acceleration of the vaccination campaign which started in mid-March. But in addition to supply problems, it also depends on the confidence of the population. “We vaccinate more than 5,000 people per day in Greater Tunis and we have more than 2 million registered on the online platform, but there are certain regions where many people are reluctant to the vaccine or do not do not have internet access or a good mobile phone network to register. In some regions, the enrollment rate does not exceed 10% ”, deplores Tarek Ben Naceur.

Amen Allah Messadi underlines that new centers have been opened and mobile teams deployed, to strengthen the campaign. “We have also involved pharmacies to boost registrations on the online platform”, he says. Pharmacies and doctors are also now authorized to perform rapid screening tests. Currently, 6% of the population has received their first dose of vaccine, and only 3%, both injections.

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To increase capacity in the longer term, the head of government, Hichem Mechichi, also pleaded with the WHO and the WTO so that the country can produce its vaccines, and export them. “We are ready to support Tunisia insofar as the country has already produced its vaccines such as BCG, but it is a process which takes time”, emphasizes Yves Souteyrand.

In the meantime, the health crisis coupled with economic difficulties and governance problems within the political class are fueling tensions in the country. On Wednesday 9 June, supporters of Tunis football club Esperance demonstrated in front of the health ministry to demand that the presence of 12,500 supporters be authorized during the semi-final of the Champions League of the Cup. Africa of Nations on June 19 at the Rades stadium. For three days, the popular district of Sidi Hassine, in Tunis, has experienced nights of clashes between residents and the police following the suspicious death of a young person, in detention in a police station. In May, the number of social protests doubled (nearly 1,155 movements) compared to the same period last year, according to the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights.