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Covid-19: Thoughts from Tunisia

Brig. Gen. (ret) Khalifa Nafti, NESA Alumnus

In Tunisia, we have started calling our medical personnel “soldiers in white coats”.  Like the other countries of the world, we consider our country at war against this unexpected and unwelcome virus. We rely on people’s positive energy during these critical times and understand that we all need to be on “full afterburner”. Undoubtedly, medical personnel are in the front line of our fight. Dr. Amel Bensaid, a young doctor and Tunisian NESA-AFRICOM alumnus, is one of many health personnel in the country that we rely on to stay safe.

I think it still a little bit early to draw a clear road-map for where we should go from here and/or what kind of message to address to the country. Today, everyone is on the front line in this war – including medical personnel and crisis management teams who at national and local levels are working very hard to find a safe and quick recovery plan.

Despite the crisis, proactive actions have helped us mitigate the situation so far. Tunisia did not lose any time taking the necessary actions to limit contagions from people traveling and coming from outside our borders. We started in early February by aggressively controlling air, land and maritime borders and confining at home all suspected Covid-19 patients. By early March, we started identifying a few dozen cases among those we had quarantined at home. When we saw that the contagion started to “community spread” outside the original travelers, the government immediately closed all cafes, restaurants, bars, universities and mosques. By 20 March, the President ordered a national curfew from 1800 to 0600.  At the same time, the Chief of Government ordered the confinement to their homes of all people except those who are medical professionals, first responders, and those providing necessary support to first responders and the population. Crisis response cells were also activated at central and regional levels to facilitate information flow, management visibility, and inform decision making. All these actions were instrumental in limiting the number of infected people and deaths.

As of 10 April 2020, there were 10,676 tested, 685 confirmed infected and 28 deaths. In the last few days, we have started to see fewer new cases of infected and fewer mortalities.  This is a good sign and we hope it is indicative that the curve is decreasing and will soon reach zero.

In general, the ongoing situation is not as bad as in other countries; but quick decision-making on closing the borders, quarantining, and social distancing/home confinement actions were crucial.

The importance of these issues were in fact discussed during NESA-AFRICOM workshops relating to new nontraditional security threats and the need for decisive, proactive, and actionable solutions by governments. We concluded that new threats require new ways of dealing with interagency coordination, as well as the need for information-sharing among crisis management teams from various countries. This was discussed as best leading to the ability to quickly react, ensure necessary transparency, and share critical/essential information both internally and externally.

That said, internal and external transparency and information-sharing require trust and identifying and focusing on the common threat. Today, sharing information appears easier even without trust between actors, only because the alternative of not sharing information on the current pandemic is so dire. Today, all countries are facing a common and devastating threat in Covid-19.

In any case, there are obvious lessons learned that should be analyzed once the crisis is over.

Despite not living in a “Francis Fukuyama world”, different ways of thinking about non-traditional cross-border threats should be seriously considered. Also, solutions to many of our global problems may come from non-traditional country sources.  A few days ago (8 April 2020), a Tunisian team of doctors from Charles Nicolle Hospital in Tunis succeeded in identifying the DNA of Covid-19 patients tracked so far in Tunisia. These results were provided to the World Health Organization on the same day, and along with like data from different countries, will hopefully help specific labs find a vaccine that might in fact indicate that the virus or mutation is different when community-contracted versus by direct contact from traveling to infected areas.

There is no doubt that Tunisia, like other countries in Africa, will face critical economic and social challenges in the coming months, especially if the confinement of citizens continues long-term.

A few but critical non-medical challenges that still need to be addressed are as follows:

  • Education system and how to save the school year for students, mainly for those currently at the University, and those going off to universities in the next school year.
  • Economic/social problems which are widespread and numerous.
  • Private companies, mainly small/medium ones, and their financial well-being.
  • Unemployment both in the formal and more critically in the informal economy.
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