In many countries, the COVID-19 outbreak brought to the surface the sad reality of poor governance in the public health sector. In Tunisia, the pandemic only exacerbated an already glaring problem. From 2013 onwards, Tunisian health professionals highly mobilized and contested the rapid decline of public health services. In 2019, the country was struck by a massive exodus of its skilled medical doctors and para-medical staff. A movement that is often justified by the sector’s outdated infrastructure and very limited resources.
Ironically, it is the awareness of the inherent shortcomings of the Tunisian public health system that pushed the newly appointed Tunisian government to react to the pandemic threats by adopting proactive measures and a clear narrative focused on prevention. Public health authorities communicated on many occasions that Tunisian hospitals will be very quickly overwhelmed by the exponential growth in the number of cases. As a recent research on intensive care services in Tunisia shows, the country has only 331 ICU beds nationwide which translates into 3 intensive care beds per 100,000 inhabitants. Bearing in mind the impact of Tunisia’s deeply rooted problems of regional disparities and corruption on supply systems for drugs and medical equipment, the anticipated outcome of a COVID-19 outbreak in Tunisia is rather gloomy. Indeed, this outbreak highlights Tunisia’s own “pandemic”. Fiscal injustice, regional inequalities, poor governance, archaic bureaucracy and a crumbling public sector are the country’s long untreated diseases. COVID-19 is perhaps a providential opportunity for looking inwards and initiating a long-awaited reform of the Tunisian administration. Indeed, in the midst of dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, the government issued a decree supressing the Ministry of Civil Service, Modernisation of the Administration and Public Policies and including its structures within the Prime Ministry. While this measure hasn’t beenthe centre of much debates because of the current context, it seems clear that fighting the pandemic and moving away from old school bureaucratic structures goes hand in hand. Despite its name, the Ministry of Civil Service, Modernisation of the Administration and Public Policies, created in 2018, was yet another unnecessary relic unveiled by the outbreak.
Starting in January 2020, the Tunisian Ministry of Public Health and its National Observatory of New and Emerging Diseases created a leadership and coordination committee in charge of monitoring the spread of the disease. One of the committee’s first actions was to deploy a set of measures aiming at controlling the inflow of travellers from high-risk zones as well as an early warning and response system to the detected cases. To support its efforts in fighting the spread of COVID-19, the Tunisian government has created a voluntary donation fund that has reached 61,931.377 Tunisian dinars to date. While the fund was initially created to support Tunisian hospitals, its final official denomination hints that the collected money will be also directed towards controlling the devastating economic and social repercussions of the COVID-19. Despite the challenges stemming from its deeply rooted structural issues and the difficulties of balancing economic hardships and urgent sanitary measures, Tunisia’s example in dealing with the COVID-19 could be seen under a very positive light, that of transparency, active communication and so far, reasonable decision-making.
By March 2020, and as the situation rapidly deteriorated on the other side of the Mediterranean, Tunisian authorities implemented a set of gradual decisions which, on March 20, culminated in a night curfew followed by the total lockdown announced by Kais Saied, President of the Republic. A day later, the head of government, Elyes Fakhfakh, also addressed citizens to explain the functioning of the total lockdown as well as precise economic measures to support the private sector and sustain the most vulnerable. These announcements sparked criticism as they embody a power play between Tunisia’s heads of the executive and yet another lengthy constitutional debate.
In his announcement to the public, Elyes Fakhfakh suggested a bill that activates implementation of article 70-2 of the constitution. This article gives the head of government the right to issue decree-laws of a legislative character. Later, Presidential Decree n. 2020-28 dated 22 March 2020, based the “limitation of circulation and gatherings outside of the curfew hours” (namely the lockdown) on article 80 of the constitution which could, exceptionally, provide the president of the republic with legislative powers. Who rules in the time of corona? The Tunisian parliament recently approved the bill on delegating legislative powers to the head of government for the period of two months starting its adoption. Only time will let us know the outcomes of applying both articles 70 and 80 of the Tunisian Constitution concomitantly. This situation, regardless of the outbreak’s evolution, could contribute to reconfiguring political alliances and determining the epicentre of the Tunisian executive during this mandate. Up until now, almost every post-2011 crisis unfolded into putting to test the sustainability of Tunisia’s newly established democratic institutions as well as strengthening the understanding of its legal arsenal and political transition, and COVID-19 is no exception. To date, Tunisia has registered 574 confirmed cases and 22 deaths over 7145 tested individuals.