'We want to be proactive': Tunisia gears up to battle coronavirus

As Europe becomes the epicentre of new coronavirus, Tunisia cautiously watches with 24 cases confirmed in the country.

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    Cafe Saadoun in Tunis has stopped offering shisha to customers after a countrywide ban on smoking pipes [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]
    Cafe Saadoun in Tunis has stopped offering shisha to customers after a countrywide ban on smoking pipes [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]

    Tunis, Tunisia - There are around 100 unused shisha pipes tucked away in the corner of the Bar el Hara teahouse in the Lafayette neighbourhood in central Tunis, the capital of Tunisia

    It has been this way since the government's decision last week to ban smoking pipes as part of measures against the spread of the coronavirus.

    But the owner, Sofien Bin Ayed, said his regular customers were angry and went to look for another cafe.

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    "We are used to freedom. So when a strong decision like this comes, we are not used to it," said Bin Ayed, sipping coffee from a disposable cup, another safety measure introduced recently.

    "They said, the government was rushing but we don't have a choice - you just have to go on the internet to see what a danger it is."

    'We want to be proactive'

    As European countries see hundreds of new coronavirus cases appear by the day, Tunisia is cautiously watching.

    Tunisia's Ministry of Health said there are 24 confirmed cases, putting the country at "level two" of the threat.

    However, Chokri Hamouda, director of basic health services, told Al Jazeera the government is taking "level three" precautions, adding that he did not rule out a "level four" emergency in the future.

    "We are lucky to be behind them and we don't want to be like them. We want to be proactive," he said.

    Coronavirus in Tunisia [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]
    Metro stations have been emptier than usual since the coronavirus crisis emerged [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]

    On March 13, Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh announced the suspension of all flights to Italy and ordered mandatory self-isolation of 14 days for all those arriving in the country. Cafes, restaurants and bars have been asked to close by 4pm, and collective prayers in the mosques have been suspended.

    In a televised address, Fakhfakh on Monday closed the borders except for commercial or repatriation purposes, banned gatherings in crowded places, shortened workdays to five hours, and suspended all sports events.

    People defying orders

    In Tunis, the metro has been emptier than usual, and some people have started wearing masks and gloves. However, many Tunisians have yet to take heed of the government's advice.

    On Friday, police closed a nightclub in a suburb of the capital after it held an event during the day in order to technically abide by the rules.

    In various parts of the country, recent arrivals have been going out, defying self-isolation orders.

    "People take photos of themselves and post it on Facebook to say look we don't respect it," he said, adding that legal action could be taken against those who don't follow instructions.

    Coronavirus in Tunisia [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]
    A Tunis cafe that also has video games said it has not seen any reduction in its clientele [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]

    In a cafe that also had video games, two friends, Hamma Ayari and Nabil Rezki, both 17, said they hoped their local hangout won't be closed.

    "We have nowhere to go. After 4pm now, we have to just walk on the roads," said Rezki, whose family members are all staying home for fear of spreading the virus.

    But he is not worried. "It is destiny, what happens today will happen today, what happens tomorrow will happen tomorrow."

    Other Tunisians are calling for more drastic measures that would force people to stay home. A petition for a nationwide curfew has been signed by more than 60,000 people.

    "Tunisians should be made to stay in, otherwise we will have 4,000 cases by the end of the month," said Omar Rezgui, 33, a shopkeeper in Tunis.

    "The rules so far mean nothing. Why are we in a cafe at 10am? Is there no virus at 10am?"

    On Monday, heads of the parliamentary blocs also asked the government to strengthen measures by closing all land, sea and air entry points to the country.

    Healthcare system

    A steep rise in coronavirus is likely to overwhelm the Tunisian healthcare system, which suffers from underinvestment and lack of equipment.

    There are only 200 beds available in the public hospitals, according to Samir Abdelmoumen, coordinator of the emergency health service, SAMU.

    To manage the crisis, a further 400 beds will be made available in private clinics, while the health service is also planning to "hospitalise" people in their homes and ensure visits by doctors.

    Coronavirus in Tunisia [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]
    People queue outside a pharmacy in the capital, Tunis [Layli Foroudi/Al Jazeera]

    "The first thing, though, is prevention. We need to stop the diffusion of this malady," said Abdelmoumen, who expected that the new announcements would include the closure of workplaces and restaurants, and curbs on public transport.

    "The propagation of the virus is quick; we lack the medical means and there isn't a public understanding of the crisis," said Mounir Hassine of the Forum for Social and Economic Rights, which is mobilising for more public awareness.

    "We don't have the material means, so we need conscience to fight it."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News