COVID-19 in North Africa

Corona proactivity in Tunisia, trivialisation in Egypt

Healthcare systems in Tunisia and Egypt are in a catastrophic state. The governmental response to the crisis in both nations could not be more different. Sofian Philip Naceur reports from Tunis

The streets are totally deserted; an eerie silence descends after dusk sets in. The only sounds in the distance are that of a car accelerating and the muffled hum of a military helicopter circling over a Tunis suburb. For days now, the helicopters have been doing their rounds patrolling the national night-time curfew from the skies.

In Tunisia, people are now only allowed to leave their homes during the day in an emergency or absolutely essential errands. Public life has ground to a halt. Schools, universities, cafes, restaurants and mosques have been shut until further notice. Industry has been paralysed as well as all public transport, ferries and air traffic.

Rapid spread

After the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic moved to Europe, the virus is now spreading rapidly through North Africa and forcing authorities to react. Governments in Tunisia and Egypt are utilising more or less the same measures applied in China and Europe to stop the pandemic in its tracks; drastic restrictions on everyday- and economic life and limitations on freedom of movement. The actual number of cases may still be far behind that of Europe and China. But the confirmed infection rate has risen sharply in recent days here too.

Thus far, Tunisia has confirmed 173 infections and five deaths; in Egypt there have been 456 confirmed corona cases and 21 deaths (25 March). But the true figures are likely to be much higher. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is now advising nations to conduct mass testing, not just in suspected cases.

Empty streets in the Tunisian capital Tunis (photo: picture-alliance/Xinhua News Agency)
Empty streets in the Tunisian capital Tunis: given its weak health system, Tunisia could also be facing disaster, as the North African country is nowhere near equipped to deal with the corona pandemic. Public hospitals lack essential equipment as well as an adequate supply of medication, gloves and masks. Even before this crisis took hold, the health service was stretched to breaking point

But neither Tunisia nor Egypt have the means to do this. The healthcare systems of both nations are nowhere near ready to overcome the pandemic. Public hospitals lack essential equipment as well as an adequate supply of medication, gloves and masks. Even before this crisis took hold, the health service was stretched to breaking point.

Tunisia: proactive and transparent

Consequently, both nations could be heading towards disaster. It is therefore crucial how and above all when the relevant authorities react and their rhetorical presence in the crisis. The approach of governments in Tunisia and Egypt could however not be more different. While Tunisia responded proactively, throwing its weight behind a robust public relations offensive, Egypt has reacted to Covid-19 in a tardy, trivialising fashion – with potentially devastating consequences.

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