Following confirmation of the first case of Coronavirus in Tunisia, Minister of Health Abdellatif Mekki announced that the country had moved from Stage 1, with no reported cases of contamination, to Stage 2 signaling presence of the virus. « We will do everything in our power to avoid reaching Stage 3, which indicates the spread of infection ». To this end, 247 other passengers and the crew members of the boat carrying the afflicted Tunisian national, plus others who had come into contact with that individual, were tested and are being monitored.

Travelers undergo a thermal check at the Tunis-Carthage Airport. Photo credit: Callum Francis Hugh

Tunisia’s former Minister of Health Sonia Ben Cheikh affirms that Tunisia is « prepared for a potential pandemic ». A series of measures has been set up by the permanent commission in charge of monitoring propagation of Coronavirus.

Rumors fly around Italy, no flights heading to Saudi Arabia

Questioned about the possibility of closing borders and suspending flights with countries affected by the virus, the Minister of Health explained that such measures are currently being examined and would only be implemented after consultation with the Prime Minister.

In response to rumors regarding the possible suspension of flights to Milan, Tunisia’s former Minister of Tourism René Trabelsi had not dismissed the possibility. Notably, Italy was one of the first countries to suspend air connections with China—a measure that did not spare it from the pandemic. Some countries have gone so far as to close their borders with affected countries; Kuwait, Pakistan and Turkey closed their borders with Iran which has experienced an outbreak of the virus. This strategy failed to prevent propagation of the virus in both Kuwait and Pakistan. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO), deems border closure counter-productive. « It has been stated repeatedly and very clearly that travel and trade restrictions are not recommended by the World Health Organization », said WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier. For now, Tunisia’s government has favored enhanced border control. The Tunisian Federation of Travel and Tourism Agencies (FTAV) has suspended flights to Saudi Arabia for the Umrah following Saudi authorities’ decision to « temporarily » prohibit pilgrims into the Kingdom as a preventive measure against the virus.

Preventative measures at the borders

Contacted by Nawaat, an official source at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicated that the decision to close borders with countries affected by or at risk of being affected by the virus concerned several ministries and was adopted by the National Security Council. « What we need to do now is to keep track of Tunisians abroad, especially in countries affected by the virus. Monitoring cells have been set up in different embassies and consulates in order to stay in touch with Tunisians and follow the situation’s evolution ». On February 3, the government repatriated ten Tunisian nationals from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the epidemic began. The ten individuals were placed in a medical isolation center for 14 days, at which point it was confirmed that none of the travelers had been contaminated by the virus.

Thermal camera check at the airport in Tabarka. Photo credit: Ministry of Health

In addition to the thermal cameras installed at airports to monitor the body temperature of travelers arriving in Tunisia, the Ministry of Health in coordination with the Tunisian Civil Aviation and Airports Authority (OACA) has developed a questionnaire for travelers to determine their itinerary. Sonia Ben Cheikh explained that the objective is to identify travelers’ contacts and potential exposure to contamination given that the body temperature check at airports does not enable identification of carriers of the virus not showing symptoms. At terrestrial borders, permanent medical teams have been set up at several border points including Hydra and Bouchebka (Kasserine), Hazoua (Tozeur), Dhehiba and Ras Jedir (Medenine).

Border police equipped with medical masks at the Hydra border point in Kasserine. Photo credit: Ministry of Health

Mobilizing resources

On February 25, parliament’s Health Commission held a hearing with Chokri Hammouda, director of basic health care at the Ministry of Health. Hammouda stated that of the 16 million dinars requested by the Ministry of Health, only four million were granted by the Ministry of Finance. He also mentioned the possibility of increasing this sum in function with the situation’s evolution, and indicated that the Ministry had 150 thousand protective outfits for persons infected by the virus. Sonia Ben Cheikh also confirmed that isolation rooms have been set up in all of the country’s hospitals. A quarantine center was also prepared at Abdelrahmen Mami hospital in Ariana.

Until March 3, over 900 individuals arriving from countries at risk were confined to their homes. More than 600 completed the 14-day incubation period or returned to their countries of residence.

An awareness-raising campaign has been launched in the media to inform the public about prevention measures. In addition to the emergency telephone number 190, a toll-free number is now operational for those experiencing symptoms of the virus. On March 4, the Ministry of Health worked in coordination with the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) to inform the public about the virus.

In a statement made to the TAP, the vice president of the Tunisian Union of Private Pharmacy Owners, Naoufel Amira, noted the recent shortage of medical masks. High demand for the masks has also resulted their price increase. In the meantime, the WHO considers the rush for medical masks wasteful and recommends that they be worn by those showing symptoms of the virus (such as coughing, sneezing and fever), those who have travelled to regions affected by the virus, and those who have been in close contact with a person who has travelled to one of these regions and subsequently fallen ill. The mask is only considered necessary for medical personnel.