PARIS: France has established a “maritime bridge” to provide COVID-19 vaccines and medical oxygen to Tunisia, which is in the midst of one of Africa’s worst coronavirus outbreaks.
In the past five days, France has flown 1.1 million vaccine doses to the North African country, French Tourism Minister Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne told France-Info radio.
The French navy shipped three huge containers of badly needed oxygen on Thursday, the minister tweeted.
Of the vaccines, 800,000 doses came from French stocks, but Paris is also using the COVAX mechanism, the UN-backed program to provide shots to poorer countries, Lemoyne said.
He did not specify which type of vaccines were sent.
The sea shipments are expected to continue until mid-August, bringing in equipment, masks and other needed material to help Tunisia cope with a sharp rise in infections and hospitalizations.
Other countries in Europe and elsewhere are pitching in to help Tunisia pull out of its health crisis.
Tunisia has reported more deaths per capita in the pandemic than any African country and among the highest daily death rates per capita in the world in recent weeks.
The country, which has a population of less than 12 million, has recorded more than 18,000 virus-related deaths in all, according to the Health Ministry.
Tunisian President Kais Saied ordered the military on Wednesday to take over management of the national response to the pandemic.
Last week, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi ordered governors of nine regions to requisition private hospitals for COVID-19 patients when public hospitals run out of oxygen, the TAP news agency reported. Tunisian hospitals have faced acute shortages of oxygen, staff and intensive care beds, and less than a tenth of the population are fully vaccinated.
In Tunisia’s Mediterranean resort of Sousse, exhausted medics struggle to stem surging coronavirus deaths, desperately monitoring oxygen supplies beside patients’ beds, while on the beach tourists relax in the sun.
“When you are told, ‘in three hours, there is no more oxygen’, it is stressful,” said Khaled Ben Jazia, head of intensive care at the hospital in Sousse, southeast of the capital Tunis.
“Two days ago, there was only an hour of oxygen left. Can you imagine the disaster if we ran out? I’ve never been so stressed ... we were all with bottles at the bedside of patients just in case.”
At the hospital, medics waited anxiously for the truck fetching fresh oxygen bottles to return.
“When we heard the siren of the escort accompanying the truck, it was such a relief,” Ben Jazia said.
After more than a year of intense work coping with the pandemic, medical staff are worn out.
On Wednesday, the prime minister’s announcement that hospital staff would not be able to take any leave sparked anger.
“We are holding up, but the situation is precarious, given the lack of human resources and logistical support,” said Zied Mezgar, head of the emergency department in Sousse hospital.
“The disaster will not come from the influx of patients, but from the exhaustion of caregivers.”
Despite the crisis, the country remains open to visitors and there is no quarantine for people — vaccinated or not — arriving with tour operators.
At the Bellevue Park hotel in Sousse, life at the Mediterranean resort seems to be going on almost as normal.
“I had my two jabs,” said Doris Brecking, a 71-year-old German tourist tanning by the pool.
“In the hospital, there are sick people, but here at the hotel, everything is fine with the health rules ... I am not afraid.”
France, where many tourists come from, has placed Tunisia on its travel “red list,” but allows people who have been double vaccinated to go there.
“The urge to come back here was too strong,” said French tourist Stephanie Wilmert, a beautician from Luxembourg.
She has been vaccinated, but said she was still cautious.
“We sometimes say, ‘it’s good, it’s over’, but no, it’s not over at all.”
Away from the crisis of the pandemic, Tunisia is trying to support the crisis in tourism, a economic pillar making up around a tenth of GDP.
“We must adapt,” said Nizar Marghli, director of the Bellevue Park hotel, where turnover has been slashed by a third.