Thousands of Tunisians have been struggling since authorities imposed a general confinement on March 22 to prevent further spread of COVID-19, bringing an already sluggish economy to a standstill.
Initially set to last until April 4, the lockdown was extended by two weeks. Then, again, Tunisia’s president extended it on April 17 to continue until May 3.
As of April 27, Tunisia had confirmed 967 cases of COVID-19 and 39 associated deaths.
With the restrictions to movement in place, most businesses, government offices, shops, cafes, and restaurants are closed, and people cannot leave their homes for anything but essential needs.
The halt of economic activity has put dozens of employees on temporary layoffs and thrown daily laborers into insecurity.
The sudden halt of economic activity has put dozens of employees on temporary layoffs and thrown countless shopkeepers and daily laborers into extreme insecurity. Retailers, street vendors, cleaners, rubbish collectors, and others who are normally working without contract, and relying on daily wages, have found themselves deprived of their only source of income.
For all these people, remaining indoors is a luxury that carries adverse economic effects. They are left with a difficult dilemma: break the lockdown rules or stay at home and earn nothing.
In its March report, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) highlighted that the health emergency brought by the novel virus pandemic has led a large part of the working population – composed of small business owners, artisans, and skilled workers – to forced unemployment. The report showed that the majority of the country’s governorates saw small protests and gatherings of disadvantaged families last month in front of headquarters of delegations claiming social security benefits.
A crowd of residents in the Tunis suburbs of Ettadhamen and Mnihla rallied outside the delegation headquarters at the end of March to demand state aid to get through the confinement, or curfew exemptions to be able to restart their daily activities. Local media cited many protesters saying: “Coronavirus is better, we are starving. Let us work, at least we will have something to eat”—some alluding to their parents, others to their children.
“Coronavirus is better, we are starving. Let us work, at least we will have something to eat.”
Hundreds of needy Tunisian citizens gathered outside local government buildings and post offices across working-class districts, in different parts of the country, the day after President Kais Saied ordered the total lockdown, queuing up to obtain the financial help promised by the government.
Similar protests erupted in late March with cash-strapped Tunisians awaiting disbursement of aid after Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh announced it would provide some 450 million dinars ($155 million USD) in financial assistance to poor families or those who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 outbreak. A portion, 150 million dinars ($51 million USD), is being unlocked for the most vulnerable including workers in informal employment, with at least 200 dinars ($70 USD) monthly going to each family.
The head of state had urged Fakhfakh to speed up the provision of relief to vulnerable segments of the population: “It is imperative to take urgent measures to deliver the supplies to the Tunisians in order to improve living conditions.” The president’s office quoted an extract from Saied’s speech.
Zeineb Mrouki, Project Coordinator at human rights group Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) in Tunisia, noted how the poor logistics behind the planned distribution of social aid caused unwanted gatherings at a time when citizens are required to practice social distancing, and comply with containment measures during the pandemic.
The quick turnouts of people in the country tell a lot about how desperately they are in need for support as they are left with nothing when not working.
“People are more afraid of dying hungry than contracting the virus.”
“People are more afraid of dying hungry than contracting the virus,” the ASF coordinator told Inside Arabia. “You tell them the state is close to delivering assistance, they will rush to ask for it regardless of the health risk involved.”
With their sources of earning lost and no chance to make a living under the shutdown, many of the daily wage workers would not hesitate to defy the coronavirus restrictions in the absence of prompt social and economic provisions.
Tunisian financial expert Mourad Ezzine had warned in a Facebook post two days before announcement of the confinement: “These people will not observe the lockdown and the curfew if they don’t get government aid to feed their families.” He reminded that “many of . . . [Tunisia’s] citizens are too poor to afford stopping to work. They have negative savings or none, and they don’t get a regular stipend at the end of the month.”
“At the end of this month, the 600,000 government employees will receive their salaries without having worked and will continue to consume. But hundreds of thousands of other Tunisians won’t see a dinar,” Soufiane Zribi, a Tunisian psychiatrist, wrote on his Facebook account on March 31.
Experts estimate there are at least 1 million people employed in the informal sector, which represents around 40 percent of the country’s economy. These day laborers, currently out of work, are the worst affected by the coronavirus crisis. Informal workers make up 41.5 percent of the workforce, according to the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies (ITES).
Tunisia will see its GDP drop by 4.3 percent in 2020 under the weight of COVID-19.
The IMF said earlier this month that Tunisia will see its GDP drop by 4.3 percent in 2020 under the weight of COVID-19. It noted that the North African state’s economy had grown by only 1 percent in 2019. Unemployment was at 15 percent last year.
As of today, 1 million families have been recipients of social aid. However, the financial scheme is hardly sufficient to cover the lost income of a family with three or more people to feed, especially when there is no monthly stipend nor social safety net to keep them secure.
“We were already living through an economic crisis before the health crisis. Now with the lockdown prolonged, how [much] longer will these people cope staying at home?” Mrouki questioned.
On April 19, the head of government promised to issue a second tranche of assistance to underprivileged families and social categories. A sum of 200 dinars ($70 USD) will target precarious segments, and needy families will be entitled to a 60 dinars ($20 USD) allowance for the holy month of Ramadan. The government will also disburse 100 dinars ($35 USD) for 140,000 retirees with incomes of less than 180 dinars ($62 USD) per month. For context, the monthly minimum wage in Tunisia is about $160 USD.