Tunisia’s COVID-19 crisis is not of its own making

Not only the incompetence of local authorities but also the West’s moral failures left Tunisia unable to stem the spread of the virus.

Tunisian medics attend to patients at a gym that was converted to deal with a surge in new COVID-19 infections in the east-central city of Kairouan on July 4, 2021 [Fethi Belaid/AFP]

In the last few weeks, with the rise of the Delta variant across the world, Tunisia has been gripped by another COVID-19 surge. The reported total death toll of more than 20,000 is harrowing in a country of about 12 million people. It is now the country with the highest coronavirus mortality rate per capita in the MENA region and in Africa.

The pandemic-hit North African nation, however, is not the only country struggling to respond effectively to this public health emergency. As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the Global South, many developing countries suffering from poor governance, overstretched hospitals and low vaccination rates are also experiencing pandemic related catastrophes similar to the one currently under way in Tunisia.

The incompetence of local governments

In Tunisia, decades of poor governance and lack of investment in the healthcare system have led to the terrible reality where any health emergency can quickly turn into an unmanageable situation. The persistent political instability in the country – which had three presidents and eight prime ministers since the 2011 revolution – has made it difficult to implement long term, sustainable and effective health policies.

It is not a surprise that the factors that hindered Tunisia’s ability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis effectively are similar to those that have limited the response capacity in countries like Lebanon, South Africa and Cuba throughout this public health emergency. In these countries and many others in the Global South, people took to the streets in large numbers to protest against their governments because the pandemic added further urgency to the existing threats of medical and economic collapse.

In Tunisia, the public’s deep dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the COVID crisis was an important reason behind the anti-government protests that led President Kais Saied to suspend Parliament on July 25 and plunge the country into another political crisis.

Since then, however, Saied’s politically motivated actions have not helped but further hindered Tunisian institutions’ ability to implement the necessary measures to stem the spread of the Delta variant. For example, on August 1, as the number of new cases, hospitalisations and deaths remained on the rise, Saied decided to issue a presidential decree to shorten the nationwide curfew. Even worse, he chose to take a walk along the iconic Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the capital Tunis, flouting urgent COVID-19 restrictions for political gain. Saied has since appointed a military doctor as his interim health minister, bypassing the constitutional restriction to appoint ministers and leveraging vaccine rollout to broaden his political gain.

For instance, despite the fact that only 12 percent of Tunisia’s population is fully vaccinated, a recent successful vaccine drive, which saw more than half a million people being vaccinated in one day, has been hailed by local media and Saied’s supporters as a proof of his successful political leadership and ability get things back to normal. Meanwhile, local authorities have no available data, clear messaging, or effective policies about how they will respond to the possible surge of post-vaccination breakthrough infections.

The ‘vaccine apartheid’

It is impossible to ignore the role incompetent local authorities motivated by their own political interests have played in exacerbating the COVID-19 crisis in Tunisia and across the Global South. However, the moral failure of the leaders of the Global North, who paved the way for what the WHO now openly calls “vaccine apartheid”, is equally – if not primarily – responsible for the ongoing COVID-19 calamity in the Global South. Indeed, to date, only about 2 percent of Africans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The unequal distribution of vaccines illustrates how the rich Western countries continue to hoard resources like they did during colonial times, with equally deadly results.

The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access initiative (COVAX) proved to be an abysmal failure after India – where most COVAX vaccine doses were to be produced – decided to halt all exports and use all vaccines it produces internally to help with the COVID-19 crisis the country itself is facing. Furthermore, Germany pushed back against the much-needed patent waiver proposal for COVID vaccines, leaving many developing countries unable to produce their own vaccines. The US and other Western European nations, meanwhile, failed to challenge these problematic moves, or offer any alternative paths to global vaccination, demonstrating how the Global North is still pursuing the same deadly policies that continue to put millions of lives at great risk.

Because of this “vaccine apartheid”, peoples of the Global South are expected to be fully vaccinated only by the end of 2023. If nothing is done to speed up this process, many shaky democracies in the region will likely transform into failed states due to the increasing economic, social and human toll of the pandemic.

The hopelessness of ‘scare tactics’

Aware of what delays in vaccination may mean for the future of the country, Tunisian health authorities seemingly succumbed to using “misery porn” to pressure rich Western nations to help the Tunisian people. Indeed, they have recently been working overtime to communicate to the world exactly how bad, how hopeless, the situation is in Tunisia.

The spokesperson for the Tunisian Ministry of Health, Nisaf Ben Alaya, for instance, recently declared that “we are in a catastrophic situation … The health system collapsed, we can only find a bed in hospitals with great difficulty.”

The harrowing images of dead bodies dumped in the middle of hospital wards, due to mortuaries and morgues failing to keep up with the surging coronavirus deaths, have also been turned into spectacles of suffering on social media by the local media and authorities to encourage Westerners to send help.

And these desperate pleas for help, these “scare tactics”, appeared to have worked.

Western nations and leaders, who watched Tunisia struggle with several waves of COVID-19 since last year, and who were well aware of the shortcomings of the Tunisian health system since before the pandemic, started to offer meaningful help only after coming face to face with the spectacle of Tunisian suffering on social media.

France, for example, has only recently decided to donate a total of 800,000 vaccine doses and three containers of oxygen to Tunisia. The US, meanwhile, has sped up the delivery of one million Moderna vaccines to Tunisia through COVAX.

The fact that the West did not take any steps to prevent Tunisia’s COVID catastrophe, despite knowing too well the country would struggle to respond to the pandemic, and that it only offered meaningful support after coming face to face with the harrowing scenes of death and trauma in the country, demonstrates clearly the enduring power imbalance between the North and the South.

As Roberto Belloni, professor of international relations at the University of Trento, wrote in 2007, “rather than originating from a transnational morality, humanitarianism originates from and reproduces the unequal power relationship between the West and the less developed world. Humanitarianism hides a Western agenda of containment that has little to do with those humanitarian ideals originally used to justify the infringement of Westphalian sovereignty. Furthermore, rather than providing an answer to human suffering, humanitarianism is at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive.”

Tunisia’s July 25 power grab meant that the latest wave of Western humanitarianism came a little too late to end the country’s COVID-19 calamity. The US vaccine diplomacy that supported the much-needed vaccine rollout will strongly shape Saied’s decision to expand the already growing US-Tunisian military cooperation. At the same time, it will take a long time for a fully functional government to be formed and to take the necessary steps to ensure donations continue to be used effectively.

Today, Tunisia is faced with a disastrous health crisis that is crippling its core political, economic, and social systems and policies. Many other countries in the Global South are in the same disastrous situation. If the West’s last-ditch efforts to provide humanitarian aid prove ineffective, not only the health systems but also the fragile democracies of many of these nations may collapse, with deadly consequences.

The many failures of local authorities undoubtedly exacerbated the worst effects of the pandemic in the Global South. Nevertheless, it was the West’s moral failure, and insistence on preserving neocolonial power dynamics, that transformed the pandemic into an existential crisis for many developing nations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.