A citizen shows an exit permit to a Tunisian police robot which monitors the enforcement of the curfew aiming to curb the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo by Khaled Nasraoui via Getty Images)

What can we learn from Tunisia’s COVID-19 experience?

07/21/2020 . By Oumayma Ben Abdallah

As many countries in Africa continue grappling with containing the ongoing surge of COVID-19 throughout the continent, Tunisia seems to have succeeded in managing the spread of the virus, despite constant threats of instability and a struggling economy.

The north African country’s public health strategy during the pandemic has proven to be quite effective in containing the virus, while many of its Mediterranean neighbors largely struggled.

With a population of 11.8 million, Tunisia’s death toll from COVID-19 has not exceeded 50 people—despite its proximity to and linkages with Italy, a demonstrably low mortality rate. To date, figures show a total 1,389 COVID-19 cases amongst which 1,103 are recovered. The country re-opened its borders to international travel on June 27 and since, has not recorded more than 232 active cases in total.

How did this country in a transition manage to put a hold on the imminent threat of a massive outbreak?

Learning from the Italian Experience:

A few months ago, as the world looked at Italy as the ultimate COVID-19 tragedy, Tunisia was taking notes. As Italy served as alarming example of how failing to implement social distancing and stay at home measures early on could wreak havoc on a population, Tunisian authorities made sure to apply the lessons learned. Already facing serious socio-economic problems, Tunisia simply couldn’t afford to fall into the Italian scenario. Consequently, it quickly imposed 6 weeks of strict lockdown measures across the country when it only had only 75 confirmed cases of the virus.

Tangible Oversight and Technology-Based Approach:

Tunisian authorities imposed early nationwide lockdown measures and ensured their earnest enforcement. While Tunisia is no stranger to curfews and a state of emergency, the use of remote-controlled robots to monitor whether the quarantine measures were followed was a striking novelty applied exclusively during this pandemic. Controlled by the authorities, robot vehicles patrolled streets, asking people if they were aware of the lockdown measures. At a later stage, Tunisian authorities promoted the use of a domestically-created phone app to trace and notify those who may have been in contact with individuals diagnosed with COVID-19. The app, called E7mi, was approved by the Ministry of Health, is available on Android devices, and awaits validation by Apple’s iOS.

The mobilization of the military is also another exceptional measure that authorities used to combat the potentially-ravaging effects of the pandemic in the country. In collaboration with the government and the Ministry of Health, armed forces assisted with extensive oversight patrols throughout Tunisia and provided essential health services, with military personnel ensuring that both social distancing rules and quarantine measures were respected in public. Initially, violators faced sentences ranging from six months up to two years in prison and fines. However, as the number of violators remarkably rose, a new decree was enacted, reducing the punishment to only 50 Tunisian dinars. Additionally, military field hospitals and mobile screening units were assembled in remote areas of the country and near the Libyan border, where they ensured the screening of Tunisians who were returning from Libya.

Media messaging and solidarity

Public solidarity in the face of COVID-19 was encouraged across Tunisia’s media landscape which, prior to the pandemic, was mainly focused on sensationalism and heated debates. During the pandemic, the media conveyed a strong message of urgency and duty, but also hope and solidarity while covering the national response to the pandemic.

National radio broadcasts emphasized that the crisis would eventually end, and soon enough Tunisians would enjoy a return to normal. This messaging also stressed how important it is to stay home, in the interest of keeping parents, grandparents, and others who are vulnerable safe. As they worked alongside the Higher Committee of Audio-visual Communication (HAICA), the Ministry of Health, and government, TV channels and radio broadcasts promoted a free and constant stream of awareness campaigns and PSAs in their programs, in addition to daily coronavirus briefings. According to a HAICA report, four TV channels in Tunisia used 75 percent of their prime time to report on COVID-19 news between March 16 and the 20. During that period only, they aired a total of 21 hours of PSAs that were replayed more than a total of 1,150 times.

Citizen-Led Initiatives

Citizen-led initiatives have achieved a significant impact in a country with as few resources as Tunisia. Confronted with shortages in medical face masks in Tunisian hospitals, 150 factory workers self-isolated in their workplace for a month, producing 50,000 masks daily to satisfy the need of the public health sector.

Another noteworthy example of personal initiatives is that of young Tunisian entrepreneur Adnen Benhaj Yahia, who produced face shields for Tunisian medical staff using 3D printing technology. Face shields were delivered to hospitals and now the entrepreneur is coordinating with the Ministry of Health on producing necessary quantities for public health institutions.

Tunisia may not have the same resources as other nations, yet the small country proved that stringent quarantine measures, social responsibility, and a comprehensive government approach were key to its success against the spread of the virus.

While Tunisia serves a positive example of handling the COVID-19 pandemic in a turbulent region, its success may only be temporary. For Tunisia, greater socioeconomic challenges lay ahead, complicated further by the civil war in neighboring Libya. Furthermore, there is the ever-present risk of a second wave outbreak spreading through the region. In the face of these risks, Tunisia must keep its vigilance and maintain its momentum in its fight against such a rapidly-evolving pandemic.