Tunisia to reopen economy despite hospital strain

Health Minute

La Marsa district, just outside Tunis, is deserted Monday, May, 10, 2021. Tunisia announced on Friday strict new measures to try to contain the spread of the coronavirus, with the prime minister saying that the health system risks collapsing if something is not done. Houses of prayer are being ordered closed starting Sunday for a week, along with outdoor markets and large stores and malls. Shops selling food can remain open. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisian authorities plan to reopen the economy next week amid public pushback against virus restrictions, even as the country’s hospitals are struggling for enough oxygen to treat a persistently high number of COVID-19 patients.

Tunisia shut down shops and restaurants and banned all sports and cultural events last week as the prime minister warned that the health system risked collapsing. Houses of prayer were also closed – including for the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan that starts Thursday.

But while Tunisia is currently reporting the highest number of new COVID-19 deaths per capita in Africa, the public is frustrated, and some small business owners or market traders have defied the new lockdown.

The government announced Wednesday night that it will go forward with reopening plans starting May 16, and promised new aid to businesses and the poor.

A nationwide curfew, which currently starts at 7 p.m., will be pushed back to 10 p.m. starting Sunday, government spokesperson Hasna Ben Slimane said Wednesday. Mosques, restaurants and schools will reopen if they observe social distancing and other virus protection measures. Visitors to Tunisia will still have to undergo quarantine upon arrival.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi promised interest-free loans to small businesses and young entrepreneurs, among other aid.

Scores of people with the virus are still dying each day, and more than 11,600 have died overall, in a nation with a population of 11 million. The country currently is reporting the highest daily per capita death rate in Africa, and one of the highest overall death rates in the region, according to Our World in Data.

Oxygen has been in short supply at Tunisian hospitals, with a sevenfold increase in demand since before the pandemic, Health Minister Faouzi Mehdi said last week. Neighboring Algeria recently delivered a supply of oxygen to neighboring Tunisia, and other shipments from Europe.

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