How Tunisia’s Impoverished Southeast Stayed COVID-19 Free

In Temezret, a village in the arid land of south-eastern Tunisia sprawling over rolling hills, locals passing each other in the khaki stone alleys greet each other without shaking hands. In a cafe at the top of the mountain on which the village is built, the villagers sit at a distance from each other. Even during a wake-up service for a deceased villager, locals keep a little more distance by joining together to eat couscous.

Temezret is located in the southeast of Tunisia, a historically marginalized region bordering Libya at the gateway to the Sahara Desert. Despite the impoverishment of the region, parts of the southeast have remained completely free of coronavirus, recording zero cases of infection. This while regional neighbors like Egypt and Algeria have been severely affected by the virus.

The village is one of the last residences of the Amazigh people in Tunisia, the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa. Speakers of the Amazigh language in Tunisia have always been rebellious and suspicious of foreigners after centuries of invasion by Romans, Arab settlers, French colonizers and others. Amazighs in the region have often been on the lookout for potential invaders – such as the virus.

The isolation of their community and its surroundings has, however, served as a buffer for the coronavirus as the pandemic rages around the world.

Monji Bouras lives in Temezret and runs a museum of Amazigh culture. He explained how the residents were safe.

“When we [in Temezret] heard about the coronavirus, we immediately thought of our tourism projects. In February, I had already stopped letting visitors into my museum.

He noted that by the time the quarantine closure in Tunisia began in mid-March, the only things open in the village were the small local shops and the bakery.

Bouras spoke of Douz, a town nearly 80 kilometers west of Temezret, whose sparsely populated governorate has recorded nearly 80 cases of coronavirus.

“Many Douz fled their town to Umm Sieh, a place in the desert near Temezret, camping on our farmland and shopping for groceries in our village. We called the municipality and the police “to prevent new arrivals from continuing to enter Temezret for fear of spreading the virus.

Rebab Benkraiem, president of the municipality of Matmata, a former Amazigh city and capital of the surrounding region, seemed proud of the municipality’s response to the threat of the coronavirus.

“In the mountain villages [including the Amazigh-speaking villages like Temezret], we sent two people from the health committee to disinfect homes, distribute masks and conduct awareness sessions on hand washing and keeping distance. They also distributed food.

“We are the most vulnerable point for infection here because we are on the road between two heavily affected areas,” she said, noting Douz in the west and Toujane, an Amazigh village in the east. , which has also recorded several cases. “But by taking security measures, [the National Guard] helped us shut down the city. We have set up a checkpoint at both ends of town so that no cases can enter. We were the first municipality to take such strict measures.

Monaam Hakim, a doctor from the large city of Sfax who works at the basic health center in Matmata, says he is proud of the way residents have been able to maintain zero coronavirus infections despite very limited resources. In some ways, he believes, it was precisely the isolation and lack of resources that protected them.

“In Matmata there is a lot of poverty,” he said, “and therefore people here don’t have the resources to travel outside the region. And there are little to no other people coming from outside Matmata ”since the start of the coronavirus epidemic.

Hakim described the measures taken during the quarantine imposed on Matmata, noting that a tent has been set up for suspected cases to take temperature, check for coughs, check blood oxygen saturation levels and check where they came from. .

In the basic health center, a special room for suspected coronavirus cases in a corridor is closed by staff after the occasional entry of a patient to be checked. The doctor inside passes documents to the staff through a small window which he opens and closes.

Hakim recognizes that the risks are high for people here if another wave of the virus strikes.

“When I go to Temezret, they only have one dispensary. I do consultations there every Wednesday, but I mostly see chronic cases. But there is no emergency room, so there is no way to deal with coronavirus cases ”except to send an ambulance down the rough and winding mountain roads and return to Matmata, he said. -he declares. Even Matmata does not have a hospital, and for the nearest intensive care they should be sent to the town of Gabès 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.

Tunisia reopened its borders on June 27, in part with the aim of restoring the important tourism industry, creating a potential influx of the virus. And much of Matmata’s local economy depends on tourism, as the city served as the backdrop for the planet Tatooine in “Star Wars,” and its landscape is full of unusual Amazigh cave houses carved into the earth.

Hakim is optimistic about the return of tourism. “Tourists going to Douz only stay one night in Matmata and leave. This is just a brief stopping point on the tourist route, ”he said, noting what he believes is minimal risk of transmitting the virus due to brief visits.

Mourad Thabti, a family medicine intern at the Gabès regional hospital and originally from Gabès, is less optimistic. He believes the state has not done enough to avoid the coronavirus crisis in the long underserved southeast where Gabès, Matmata and villages like Temezret are located.

“It was civil society that saved Gabès. The Ministry of Health gave almost nothing. Civil society here has been doing fundraising. They collected and donated the missing materials to the hospital from here. They gave virus awareness trainings in small villages. And as shipments to Tunis were blocked [during quarantine], they produced face masks at home.

“The government has no plan on how to deal with marginalized areas after opening. There were no plans to give their drugs to vulnerable people during the lockdown, and some died, ”Thabti said, referring to cases of people with diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease who have stopped treatment. during quarantine.

Unlike Hakim, Matmata’s doctor, Thabti was less optimistic about the reopening of borders and the return of tourism to Matmata and neighboring Amazigh villages.

“Even a tourist who stays overnight would be catastrophic if he is infected. He would leave the virus on a plate, for example, even after he left. “

He added: “And not everyone here will abide by the distancing rules because they have to work or starve. Summer brings tourists to see the camels and the desert, and locals don’t stop working just because of a cough or fever.

Thabti said anyone in the region who needs next-level medical treatment for an infection should go to major northern coastal towns or Tunis. But many residents, he said, lack the resources to pay for such treatment.

“We are in a fragile state here in the south.

About Wesley V. Finley

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