Tunis, March 2020. Photo by Ahmed Zarrouki (Nawaat).

With the first Covid-19 case officially declared on Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh’s first day in office, the Tunisian government was confronted with a new serious challenge: to meet the pandemic with appropriate measures and strategies to limit its quick expansion throughout the country.

Fakhfakh’s government took office after four months of political instability, during which time a government structure headed by Habib Jemli failed to gain parliament’s trust. The current government was established following a parliamentary vote on February 27, with 129 votes in favor, 77 against, and one parliamentarian abstaining out of total 217 seats. The country has undergone harsh social, economic, and political conditions including high rates of unemployment, an increasingly drastic inflation rate, a low economic growth rate, mounting debts, and political instability. The latter has seriously exacerbated the situation in Tunisia. Political bids among parties have deepened the political crisis, hindering the process of structuring government and tackling the problems at hand. This was particularly apparent during parliamentary meetings where each party favored its own interests and rejected any possible negotiations with opposing parties. Mutual recriminations overwhelmed the political scene, creating a suffocating atmosphere within parliament. Political disputes were consequently the object of public resentment, especially as people were hoping for stability, reforms, security, and economic prosperity.

Worldwide, the outbreak of the Corona virus and dramatic increase in death tolls caused the policies of infected countries to change drastically. This was also the case for the Tunisian government. Initially set on addressing existing troubles, the government has since changed its trajectory and is now focused on the life-threatening epidemic that is challenging the world economy. Undertaking gradual measures to stop the spread of the virus, the government started with a national curfew in order to limit people’s mobility. Next, the government adopted a comprehensive quarantine regime that includes most institutions and enterprises except health, financial and security sectors, and some other necessary services. Enormous cooperative efforts have been made by the Ministry of Health with all its bodies and affiliations, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the municipalities, and civil society with its various philanthropic associations and organizations. Efforts have been made despite the scarcity of necessary resources and tools which has led some professors, students, engineers, and employees to step in and start manufacturing efficient masks and equipment needed to help and treat infected individuals. There are have also been campaigns calling for donations and volunteers. With a daily increase in the number of infected individuals, efforts have been intensified and strategies and plans have been elaborated in an attempt to curb the spread of the epidemic.

This has ultimately contributed to a “positive” atmosphere of engagement and solidarity far from political bickering. Tension among political parties has eased up as most of parliamentary meetings are focused on different issues relating to the virus. Parties that debated over certain legislative points including deputies’ prerogatives are now negotiating appropriate measures to undertake in the current critical situation. Recently, the Prime Minister has introduced a governmental project based on a parliamentary mandate that would allow him to have full authority to manage donation operations and disseminate social aids among needy citizens. This proposal was initially considered controversial but was ultimately adopted with an overwhelming majority vote in parliament.

In light of these developments, the more effective measures are deployed, the more it is likely it is that the pandemic can be contained. The quarantine period is an opportunity for Tunisian politicians to rethink the political scene with more enthusiasm and learn from the past. The most important lesson is that ideological differences do not lie in political bids and disputes; instead, ideological differences should be considered the seeds of future democracies and liberties. Furthermore, the deficiencies exposed during this period in major sectors—especially the sectors of healthcare services and equipment—indicate the urgent need for sweeping reforms and strategies that would improve those sectors. Tools are scarce and inefficient with regards to the challenging economic situation that is only becoming more extreme with the epidemic. However, hard work, cooperation, engagement, and solidarity are key factors that would help our country surpass this situation. Covid-19 may leave its mark on the world with catastrophic human losses and economic outcomes, but it also reveals a promising global vision of the future as many developments and conditions are likely to change.