Why Tunisians were caught in the eye of the coronavirus storm

Why Tunisians were caught in the eye of the coronavirus storm
Tunisians celebrated on July 25 after President Kais Saied announced the dismissal of the country’s prime minister following nationwide protests. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 02 August 2021

Why Tunisians were caught in the eye of the coronavirus storm

Why Tunisians were caught in the eye of the coronavirus storm
  • Ennahda party at the receiving end of anger over perceived government mismanagement of pandemic
  • Slow vaccine rollout, lax observance of safety protocols and delta variant seen as contributing factors

DUBAI: Hasna Worshafani, a Dubai-based paralegal, had not been able to visit her parents in their native Tunisia for more than a year owing to COVID-19 air travel restrictions.

But just as the curbs began to be lifted, the North African country was struck by a devastating new wave of virus cases, forcing her to postpone her trip once again.

“The plan was to spend Eid Al-Adha with my parents, but because the situation back home is not okay, and there is a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases, I decided to put travel plans on hold until things settled a little,” Worshafani, a mother of two children, told Arab News.

Tunisia is among five African states in the throes of a devastating third wave of COVID-19 infections. The country, with a population of 11.69 million, has reported more than 18,600 deaths since the pandemic was declared in March last year.

On Sunday, hundreds of protesters rallied in the capital, Tunis, and other cities demanding the government’s resignation in the face of pandemic-linked economic and political troubles. By the end of the day, President Kais Saied had announced the suspension of parliament and the dismissal of Hichem Mechichi from the post of prime minister.

For months, as political squabbling paralyzed the government, hospitals struggled with oxygen shortages and a lack of staff and ICU beds, prompting Saudi Arabia, the UAE, France and Egypt among other countries to send emergency medical supplies and vaccine doses to Tunisia.

Authorities have also failed to implement a speedy vaccine rollout. Fewer than a million people — about eight percent of the population — have been fully vaccinated, even as the caseload has surged to one of the highest in Africa.

While there are several reasons for the uptick in COVID-19 cases, many Tunisians hold the Islamist Ennahda — the largest party in parliament — responsible for the deteriorating economic, social and health conditions since its entry into power in 2019.

Analysts say the shibboleths of democracy and pluralism that roll off the Islamists’ lips during election season may not assuage the public’s fears and anxieties stemming from the collapse of the health system and the parlous state of the economy.

One Tunisian expat said that lockdowns and travel bans became ‘unbearable for many people.’ (AFP)

Pointing to the scenes of jubilation that greeted the presidential announcement on Sunday night and the reports of attempts to storm Ennahda offices in multiple cities, the analysts say Tunisia’s Islamists will wait to see which way the political wind is blowing before flexing their muscles. In any case, the erosion of public support for democracy due to mass unemployment and declining state services is a fact that cannot be ignored.

Although Ennahda, along with leftists, supported Saied in the 2019 presidential election, their relations began to sour since the start of the pandemic. A prolonged deadlock between the president, the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament was seen as a major reason behind the government’s bungled response to the latest COVID-19 wave.

Mechichi, who was appointed head of government exactly one year ago, had overseen an unruly cabinet rocked by ministerial resignations and tensions with President Saied. As soaring COVID-19 cases swamped Tunisia’s hospitals, he sacked the health minister this month. But the move was seen by many as a case of too little too late.

None of this is to say politicians are solely to blame for the COVID-19 catastrophe in Tunisia. Similar to much of the world in the spring of 2020, the country implemented a full lockdown. The strategy proved extremely effective, with Tunisia reporting zero cases for a period of 40 days. But when the borders were reopened in June and tourists began to return, cases suddenly shot up.

Bureaucrats in much of North Africa failed to anticipate the impact of at least three factors when they decided to relax lockdowns or open up borders. The first is the high transmissibility of the delta variant, thought to have originated in India. The second is dwindling compliance with hygiene and social-distancing measures, and the third is the extremely low rate of vaccination.

“Different countries have different epidemiological situations, so we can’t generalize all of North Africa,” Abdinasir Abubakar, head of the Infectious Hazard Management Unit at the WHO regional office in Cairo, told Arab News.

He said some countries “invested so much in vaccination and this is paying off,” while others focused on enforcing public health measures to slow the spread of the virus.

Public anger over the lax government response to post-revolution security threats has haunted the ruling Ennahda party. (AFP)

However, poor compliance has been widely observed in Tunisia, contributing to a surge in cases of the delta variant. “That is actually what is driving the new surge of cases in North Africa, as well as other countries in the region,” Abubakar said.

To bring down the caseload, Abubakar wants the public to adhere to government restrictions on movement and mass gatherings.

“Governments need to reinforce restrictions. But, most importantly, people need to understand the reason why governments are imposing restrictions: Because of safety, health, and protection,” he said.

“People need to comply and respect that. They need to wear masks. They need to respect physical distancing. They need to promote handwashing and cleaning and they need to get vaccinated. They need to avoid any big social gatherings and travel.”

Abubakar is confident the situation in Tunisia and other African countries can be brought under control. For now, he is more concerned about the shortage of oxygen across the region.

“Literally, everywhere we are going through this. People are dying simply because there is not enough oxygen. We have never prioritized it and now this is something we need to do, and it is very easy to do as long as there is commitment and resources,” he said.

Worshafani, the Tunisian expat in Dubai, thinks the situation has deteriorated in her home country for one simple reason: Lockdowns and travel bans had become unbearable for many households.

“Authorities can’t impose a full lockdown for long, because the economy can’t take such a hit after peoples’ lives were badly affected by the lockdowns last year,” she said.

“The cost of living in Tunisia has steadily increased during the past 10 years. People have lost patience.”

Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi

France's Macron says will continue to support Lebanon

France's Macron says will continue to support Lebanon
Updated 18 min 19 sec ago

France's Macron says will continue to support Lebanon

France's Macron says will continue to support Lebanon

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday France would continue to support Lebanon, adding the country's new government needed to take urgent reform measures.
"Lebanon can count on France," Macron said during a news conference held after a meeting with Lebanese new Prime Minister Najib Mikati. 

Iranian FM: Tehran still committed to nuclear talks

Iranian FM: Tehran still committed to nuclear talks
Updated 9 sec ago

Iranian FM: Tehran still committed to nuclear talks

Iranian FM: Tehran still committed to nuclear talks

TEHRAN: Iran does not want to abandon talks aimed at reviving a nuclear deal with major powers, its foreign minister said Friday, after Western powers expressed frustration over the slow pace.
"We are not seeking to quit the negotiating table," Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told the official IRNA news agency.
"We will certainly pursue a negotiation that serves the rights and interests of our nation."
A senior US official this week made clear Washington's frustration with Tehran over the absence of any "positive indication" it is prepared to return to the talks to "close down the remaining issues".
European governments said they heard nothing concrete from Amir-Abdollahian during their meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Speaking to IRNA from New York, the Iranian foreign minister said: "We are looking at avenues on the question of a return to negotiations, and, God willing, we will return to the negotiating table at the first opportunity."
Concluded in 2015, the nuclear deal offered Tehran relief from Western and UN sanctions in exchange for Tehran's commitment to never acquire nuclear weapons and to drastically reduce its nuclear activities, under the strict control of the UN.
But then US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew his country from the deal in 2018 and ramped up sanctions, provoking Iran into suspending most of its nuclear commitments.
Talks between Iran and the remaining five parties aimed at reviving the deal began in Vienna in April but have been suspended since June, when ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi was elected president.
The US -- under Trump's successor President Joe Biden -- has participated indirectly in those talks, which seek to bring Washington back inside the agreement and lift the sanctions on Iran.
Hopes of reviving the deal were kept alive earlier this month when Iran agreed to a new compromise with the UN nuclear agency on the monitoring of its nuclear facilities.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said the move would provide "time" for "diplomacy".

Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability

Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability
Updated 24 September 2021

Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability

Libyan leader to hold international conference on country’s security, stability
  • Mohammed Al-Menfi revealed that security, military, and economic issues would top the agenda of the meeting that would also shore up support for the upcoming national elections

WASHINGTON: The chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya on Thursday said he would be staging an international conference next month to gain backing for efforts to bring stability and security to the country.

Mohammed Al-Menfi revealed that security, military, and economic issues would top the agenda of the meeting that would also shore up support for the upcoming national elections.

Al-Menfi, who is attending the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York, added that the conference would host Libyan groups eager for reconciliation along with regional and international parties to push for the stability and security that has eluded Libya since the 2011 fall of Muammar Qaddafi who ruled the country for 40 years.

The Libyan leader said despite working on reconciliation efforts among Libyan groups, challenges still lay ahead on the road to achieving democracy.

He noted that Libya had made “significant strides” in implementing solutions that were mandated through agreements between the different Libyan groups and UN resolutions.

However, despite the progress, Al-Menfi pointed out that the country was still “faced with serious challenges and fast-paced developments” that could stall the ongoing political process.

On the ground, Libya remains confronted by many daunting challenges toward achieving political unity among its entrenched warring parties. Conflict still persists between the Tripoli-based Presidential Council and Gen. Khalifa Haftar who controls the eastern half of the country as well as the Libyan armed forces.

A transitional government was formed earlier this year to move the country forward toward elections on Dec. 24.

“Libya has the choice to either succeed toward becoming a democracy through free and transparent elections or go back to square one of infighting and military conflict,” Al-Menfi said.

He called on the international community to assist Libya in removing foreign militaries and mercenaries from the country as a way to build a “conducive environment for safe and transparent elections.”

Al-Menfi also demanded that European countries share their responsibilities in addressing the issue of illegal African migrants who pass through Libya on the way north to Europe, adding that his country had carried the burden alone and deserved support from the international community.

On the issues of human rights abuses that plagued Libya during its decade-long civil war, and the presence of terrorist groups on Libyan soil, he said his government was committed to safeguarding the human rights of the Libyan people and had worked toward bringing meaningful reconciliation through detainees and prisoners exchange, reparation, and addressing the fate of missing people.

Al-Menfi reiterated Libyan support for the Palestinian people and said his country was committed to the establishment of the Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Oman resumes Friday prayers in mosques following more than yearlong closure

Oman resumes Friday prayers in mosques following more than yearlong closure
Updated 24 September 2021

Oman resumes Friday prayers in mosques following more than yearlong closure

Oman resumes Friday prayers in mosques following more than yearlong closure

Oman’s mosques reopen for Friday prayers today, after a closure that lasted more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, national daily Times of Oman reported.

The decision came after a “noticeable decrease in the curve of COVID-19 cases,” the report added.

Oman’s coronavirus supreme committee issued the decision on Sept. 19 to reopen mosques for Friday prayers from Sept. 24 for those who have been vaccinated.

The committee has requested a commitment to social distancing, the use of special carpets in mosques, the wearing of masks, and permitting only 50 percent of the mosque's capacity to enter.

Meanwhile, wedding halls and hotels have been requested by Oman’s Government Communication Centre to notify concerned municipalities at least 72 hours before an event.

Venues will only be allowed to operate at a 50 percent capacity and non-vaccinated employees and visitors will not be permitted to enter.

Venues will also be required to keep a record of employees’ entry and exit time and document the cleaning and disinfection operations.

How circular carbon economy provides a framework for a sustainable future

How circular carbon economy provides a framework for a sustainable future
Updated 24 September 2021

How circular carbon economy provides a framework for a sustainable future

How circular carbon economy provides a framework for a sustainable future
  • CCE is a closed-loop system designed to promote the reuse of resources instead of wasting them
  • Governments urged to consider adopting inclusive, flexible pathways offered by the CCE platform

DUBAI: Floods, storms and other extreme weather events have grown in frequency and intensity in many parts of the world over the past two decades, primarily as a result of global warming. To prevent temperatures rising any further, scientists are urging nations to drastically reduce their carbon emissions.

Governments in the Middle East have accelerated action toward reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the lead-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this November, including the adoption of renewables and methods for the removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

One innovative strategy embraced by Saudi Arabia is the circular carbon economy (CCE), a closed-loop system designed to promote the reuse of resources that would otherwise have been wasted or discarded.

The Middle East region is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Several of its nations regularly experience temperatures in excess of 50C, leading to droughts, the destruction of delicate ecosystems and the loss of livelihoods, particularly among poor farming communities.

In Iraq, Syria and Turkey, for instance, once mighty rivers are beginning to run dry, destroying fragile fishing communities along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates and allowing the desert to consume lands once considered a breadbasket.

The knock-on effects of climate change have resulted in the mass displacement of rural populations and the exacerbation of conflicts — trends that experts warn will only get worse if immediate and radical action is not taken at a global level.

“These events have not been directly caused by climate change, but they will be exacerbating the more frequent occurrence in the coming decades if action on climate is not taken,” said Saudi Arabia’s Princess Noura bint Turki Al-Saud, speaking virtually at the 9th World Sustainability Forum (WSF 2021) earlier this month.

Princess Noura is a founding partner at AEON Strategy and an advisory board member of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology Circular Carbon Initiative.

Reducing the world's reliance on fossil fuels is at the core of international strategies to prevent catastrophic climate change. (AFP/File Photo)

CCE is an energy strategy that advocates the reduction, reuse and recycling of carbon products and their removal in an effort to eliminate harmful pollutants from the atmosphere.

Energy ministers from the G20 group of leading economies endorsed Saudi Arabia’s CCE approach to managing greenhouse-gas emissions last year when the Kingdom held the G20 presidency.

In partnership with Saudi Aramco, the Kingdom has made energy efficiency and the minimization of flaring at its oilfields top priorities in mitigating climate change, alongside fossil-fuel reduction through substitution with low-carbon energy sources such as renewables, hydropower, nuclear and bioenergy.

Using innovative technologies, carbon dioxide can be captured from the air and reused for useful products, such as fuels, bioenergy, chemicals, building materials, food and beverages. It can also be chemically transformed into new products such as fertilizer and cement, or other forms of energy such as synthetic fuels.

Technologies can also be used to capture and store CO2 to achieve a large-scale reduction of emissions. Countries can also increase the process of photosynthesis by planting more trees — a strategy that is key to the Kingdom’s Saudi Green initiative.

Although the need to cut carbon emissions to halt global warming is now widely accepted, Princess Noura cautioned that the reduction is currently happening too slowly to prevent global temperatures climbing 1.5 to 2 C above pre-industrial levels.

“Despite three decades of continued efforts in climate diplomacy and policy making, there has been little impact on curbing emissions,” she told the WSF panel. “Five years into the Paris Agreement, global CO2 concentrations continue to increase in the atmosphere, driven by unabated global emissions.”

In fact, by the end of 2020, CO2 emissions were 2 percent higher than they were at the same time the previous year. Now global CO2 emissions are creeping ever closer to their pre-pandemic peak due to an increasing demand for coal, oil and gas as economic life resumes.

An innovative strategy embraced by Saudi Arabia is the circular carbon economy (CCE), a closed-loop system designed to promote the reuse of resources. (Supplied)

The International Energy Agency estimates that in the absence of further policy changes, global oil demand could reach 100.6 million barrels a day by the end of 2020. “This recent and historic trend underscores the challenge of curbing emissions and decarbonizing the global energy system,” Princess Noura said.

In a world that remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels — both as a source of energy and, for many countries, a source of revenue — Princess Noura says there is a critical need to scale up adaptation and mitigation efforts globally and to focus on the humanitarian response in those countries most vulnerable to the physical impacts of climate change.

She urged governments to consider adopting the inclusive and flexible pathways offered by the CCE platform, which aggregates all mitigation and carbon management options into a single framework.

“It is allowing nations to collaborate in mutual areas of benefit and collectively address emissions in a coordinated manner,” she said.

Ambitious action can avoid the most devastating effects of climate change, but only if all nations act together, says Alok Sharma (pictured), the president of UN Climate Change Conference COP26. (AFP/File Photo)

“The CCE framework highlights the importance of renewable energy technologies and enhanced energy efficiency, which will be crucial to decarbonizing our energy system, but it also stresses the value of the best carbon management technologies.

“These remove carbon already in the atmosphere or from a point source before it enters the atmosphere, to either store or to utilize through recycling into other products, or using directly for specific purposes.”

The CCE platform also emphasizes nature-based solutions, requiring a whole ecosystem for innovation, deployment and scale, underpinned by strong commitment from governments, Princess Noura said.

“(There is a) need to scale up solutions and drive innovation at a rate that is faster than the rates of changing climates. Much of the policies, regulations and support that brought modern renewables to the market over the past decades are necessary to deploy the technologies that are needed today to reduce carbon emissions.”

An employee connects a Volkswagen (VW) ID.3 electric car to a loading station of German carmaker Volkswagen, at the 'Glassy Manufactory' (Glaeserne Manufaktur) production site in Dresden. (AFP/File Photo)

In its latest report published in August this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that without the widespread adoption of carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) technologies, long-term global climate goals may be unobtainable.

According to the IEA, annual clean energy investment worldwide will need to more than triple by 2030 to about $4 trillion to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

“CCUS is one of the few technologies available that can decarbonize both power generation and heavy industries, such as cement, steel and chemical production with verifiable emissions reductions,” it said.

Although the international community has been discussing the adoption of such technologies for some time, implementation has been slow.

“Any further delay in CCUS implementation will make it even harder to achieve the climate goals,” said Aqil Jamal, chief technologist leading the carbon management research division of Aramco’s R&D Center in Dhahran, speaking on the same WSF 2021 panel.

Palestinians work at Al-Hattab charcoal production facility, east of Gaza City, on January 28, 2021, the largest producer in the Gaza Strip. (AFP/File Photo)

Trouble is, CCUS technologies are more readily available to rich countries, and energy access remains a problem for many developing countries.

“There is a huge portion of the global population that doesn’t have electricity nor clean cooking fuels,” Adam Sieminski, senior adviser to the board of trustees of the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, told the panel.

“We have to find a way to do that — cleanly. The idea is gaining political traction, which means the ability to craft policies to put real pragmatic approaches in place is increasing.”

Sieminski added: “The CCE framework is something that’s being taken very seriously in Saudi Arabia.

“Many people seem to look at the whole concept of managing carbon as (costly), and the most important thing is that we have to move toward looking at this as value creation and how carbon can create value in the global economy.”