Post-virus recovery goes up in flames for Tunisian vendors

Tunisia’s early lockdown saw it report just 49 deaths from the coronavirus disease, but informal workers, like vendors, have suffered. (AFP)
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Updated 18 June 2020

Post-virus recovery goes up in flames for Tunisian vendors

  • Dozens of market sellers in the Tunisian capital have seen their livelihoods go up in smoke

TUNIS: The Tunis Medina had reopened for business after nearly three months of lockdown, but vendor Abdel Aziz Talbi wasn’t working.

Three weeks earlier, the 67-year-old lost his entire stock of clothes and shoes in a fire that ravaged the second-hand market.

“I had prepared and bought clothes for the summer,” said Talbi. “All of it is burnt.”

Dozens of market sellers in the Tunisian capital have seen their livelihoods go up in smoke, destroying their hopes of recovering from months of lost revenue due to slow sales and measures put in place to stop the coronavirus.

Even before the market in the historic Hafsia neighbourhood had to close for lockdown in March, sellers say sales of their winter stock were low due to mild weather and a new market that blocked access to their stalls.

The old market, which houses several hundred stalls, reopened on May 11, as the lockdown was partially eased in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan.

Traders say they hoped sales would pick up with people looking for new clothes for Eid. But two days later, 30 of the 50 stalls in the oldest part of the market went up in flames. Police are investigating, and have arrested six people suspected of arson, according to municipal authorities.

“They (the sellers) were already suffering and Ramadan tends to be a good time, so the fire hit at a very bad time,” says Katharina Grueneisl, a researcher studying Tunis’ second-hand economy at Durham University in the UK. Market sellers who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation said they lost between 3,000 dinars ($1,100) and 35,000 dinars worth of stock to the fire, though Grueneisl said reliable data was hard to find.

“In the period of (lockdown), I borrowed money — 500 dinars here, 500 there. I am now in debt to my wholesaler, my friends and my relatives,” said Talbi.

“Sellers that can are rebuilding. The rest of us, we’re just standing here and watching.”

Now a square of rubble punctuated with a few blackened metal poles, the marketplace was a criss-cross of wooden stalls. It sprung up on the demolition site of a historic Jewish neighbourhood, when rural migrants arrived in Tunis and started building and selling informally.

Today, the vendors are part of Tunisia’s informal workforce, worth almost 60 percent of the country’s total working population, according to the International Labour Organisation.

It added that informal workers were among the hardest hit by global coronavirus lockdowns.

By instituting severe quarantine measures early, Tunisia managed to control the spread of the disease, reporting only 49 deaths.

However, those measures also deepened the country’s economic crisis and have left many Tunisians struggling to make ends meet.

Among the poorest 40 percent of Tunisian people, over three-quarters received no income at all during the lockdown, according to Tunisia’s national statistics institute and the World Bank.

“We have no insurance, so I didn’t receive anything,” said Ali Boualeg, 82, who has had a stall in the market since the 1970s.

Amel Meddeb, head of the municipal council for the medina, said the government was paying a 200-dinar monthly stipend to individuals hit by the crisis, but many informal workers were not eligible.

“In the informal sector, we can’t assess whether workers are in need or not, we don’t know if they earn a lot or a little,” she explained.

The municipality has offered to help repair the damage caused by the fire and sees this as a good occasion to “study the situation of the fripe (market),” said Meddeb.

That could include formalising the marketplace by allocating spaces, registering the sellers — who currently pay the municipality a small, annual licence fee — and improving the layout to prevent future fires, she noted.

But the vendors are wary of the council’s plans, worried that authorities will “take this place” said Mohamed Ayari, a 62-year-old seller, as he sat on a cushion and surveilled the construction workers rebuilding his stall.

Meddeb, though, said there are no plans to get rid of the market completely.


Oil world tries to read Chinese post-pandemic demand

Updated 25 October 2020

Oil world tries to read Chinese post-pandemic demand

  • The economic outlook for Asia will help decide some pretty pressing short-term policy issues
  • China’s refineries are getting back in top gear, and are looking to increase crude purchases in anticipation of economic recovery

DUBAI: While all eyes are on the US presidential election, the energy sector is keeping a watchful scrutiny on what is happening on the other side of the world, in China and the rest of Asia. Who the Americans choose will of course have enormous influence on energy policy for years to come, not least because Donald Trump versus Joe Biden is, in many ways, a runoff between the traditional oil and gas industry and the alternative renewable future.

But policymakers in the Middle East and in the broader OPEC+ alliance led by Saudi Arabia and Russia are looking eastward to determine more immediate priorities. The economic outlook for Asia, and of China in particular, will help decide some pretty pressing short-term policy issues.

At what official selling price should big producers such as Saudi Aramco and Adnoc mark their exports to China in the coming weeks? What stance should OPEC+ take toward compliance and compensation for the rest of this year? And, crucially, should it press ahead with plans to put an extra 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil on global markets in January, as the historic April cuts deal envisaged?

An added variable has been thrown into the works with higher-than-expected output from Libya, which has resumed production and exports from its war-torn facilities and could, according to some energy experts, be producing another 1 million barrels by the end of the year.

That is hardly a deluge of crude by global standards, in a world that consumes above 90 million bpd, though it is enough to complicate the already-delicate calculations of OPEC+ analysts.

But the big imponderable is China. The country blew hot and cold on oil imports since the April crisis, snapping up cheap oil one month and easing back on imports the next. It was hard to read the signals coming out of China.

Were the pauses in imports due to a slower rate of recovery from the pandemic economic lockdowns? Or was China simply chock-full of crude, to the extent that it had filled its strategic reserve and had nowhere else to store it?

Evidence of the latter came in the form of the flotilla of crude tankers waiting to unload off the coast of the Shandong oil terminal. At one stage, there were as many as 60 million barrels afloat awaiting discharge off China’s coast.

The people who make a living from tracking these things say that there has recently been evidence of a slow unloading from these ships, but that there is still an awful lot of crude afloat, waiting to come onshore.

There have also been signs that China’s refineries are getting back in top gear, and are looking to increase crude purchases in anticipation of economic recovery. One of the biggest, Rongsheng Petrochemical, recently snapped up 7 million barrels through Singapore, in a move taken by some to be the starting gun on an aggressive Chinese buying spree.

The economic logic suggests that if that is going to happen, it will take place pretty soon. According to the International Monetary Fund’s latest review, China — the only major economy forecast to grow in 2020, with 1.9 percent growth — will soar to 8.2 percent expansion next year. The country’s early and rigorous lockdown, and high levels of economic stimulus since then, are clearly paying off.

Whether the Chinese lift-off comes in time to affect OPEC+ calculations over the planned January increase remains to be seen. From where oil policymakers are looking at it at the moment, it looks like a good bet that China, at least, will need plenty of crude next year to fuel its post-pandemic recovery.