COVID-19: Three Possible Scenarios in Tunisia

Shiran Ben Abderrazak, NESA Alumnus and Executive Director, Rambourg Foundation

In the following discussion, we will try to project into the coming months with three different scenarios in order to determine what could happen to Tunisia, its institutions, and its population(s) as a result of the health crisis currently affecting the whole world. However, before reaching the projections, an assessment of the institutional, economic and social situation should be made in order to offer the conceptual framework within which the various proposed scenarios will be set.

The art of foresight is based on a delicate balance between the need to know the state of what one is looking at prospectively, the strong trends that seem to emerge, and the weak signals that one must be able to distinguish in the constant flow of information. This discipline proposes to draw, from the conjunction of these elements, possible scenarios for the evolution of a situation. The objective of this intellectual exercise is to offer a tool to visualize possibilities and to allow readers to navigate within these possibilities.

In March 2020, Tunisia just got a new government after an election year that virtually shut the country down for almost all of 2019. The new government therefore finds itself in the delicate position of having to learn how to control the country’s administration (a sufficiently complex exercise in itself) in the face of a global pandemic crisis. All of this is taking place on a three-player political chessboard where the balance of power is convoluted, to say the least.

The economic situation in the country is dire; the previous four years failed to address the problem of the illegal and informal economy and the smuggling of contraband; a sector that represented, according to various studies carried out by the World Bank and the OECD, between 30% and 45% of the economy (2014 and 2016). This has created a growing imbalance between those who pay their taxes, whose burden is increasing as the informal sector grows. And yet, how can we get rid of this informal economy, which offers the only possibility for certain regions and areas to offer work and wealth creation? In any case, how can we oppose the power of money that does not exist?

The high cost of living, the increases in energy prices, the State’s budgetary imbalance, and the international debts contracted over the last ten years, which now must begin to be repaid, as well as a totally anachronistic civil service, disconnected from reality and without any notion of public service, which for too many decades has served to ease the social crisis that is constantly smoldering in this country where unemployed graduates are being produced one by one: this is the economic context that every new government has to deal with.

As far as the social aspect is concerned, apart from the general feeling amongst the population that they have been abandoned by a system that has sold the idea of being a meritocratic system with strong social protection without the means to do so, there is a growing retreat into the local and the micro-local (which has been around for a long time, but was nevertheless outdated in a nationalism that has taken a blow since the revolution). What prevails from now on is no longer the social struggle or the shared, common ideal, but the struggle of sectoral and corporatist demands. In other words, every man for himself and God for all. The set of tools and instruments of control of the dictatorial political system, which was based on a total territorial, economic and social network, has collapsed and each of the survivors of this system (employers’ union, trade union centers, etc.) is in a stage of survival for oneself and internal negotiation to maintain one’s centralist survival… in other words, the control of the social by institutional politics is close to zero.

This is the macro-political, social and economic context at the starting point of this health crisis. From there, let us add the health crisis that is coming and that we have every reason to believe will hit the Tunisian population in a very violent and rather unexpected way in the coming weeks, and let us think about what could happen. The starting point for these scenarios is the following situation:

  • The number of tests to find out how many people have Covid-19 is well below what should have been done, the actual number of cases is much higher than the authorities announce, and a peak in symptomatic cases will occur within the next couple of weeks, leading to saturation of requisitioned hospitals and clinics and an inability to absorb the demand for resuscitation beds.

From there, three scenarios could be set in motion.

1)  The collapse scenario:

Nothing is being done to psychologically prepare the population for what is going to happen. No solution is being implemented nationally (setting up military field hospitals in areas with insufficient equipment and hospital staff) and jointly with Tunisia’s allies (asking for much greater support than that requested from China, asking for concrete bilateral aid from friendly countries that are managing the crisis and are not in an emergency situation, etc.). Cases are increasing rapidly, and the resuscitation beds are quickly being filled. Drastic choices must be made and many patients are refused care due to a lack of local hospital equipment or a lack of space in such equipment. Add to this the economic crisis affecting the country’s most fragile populations, who have been placed in a critical state of dependency towards the State and what could be considered charity.

Desperation and lack of psychological preparation are leading the populations, whose resentment towards the state and its institutions are already great (on the brink of insurgency), to add to the health crisis that is already overwhelming the management capacities of a tired state and a newly arrived government that is torn in a power balance game that does not leave it enough margins to administer the crisis. These insurgent activities could range from riots to the ransacking of state institutions and even the storming of hospitals and clinics in order to forcefully obtain the care required for critically-ill loved ones. They could also lead to looting of food warehouses and financial institutions.

On the other hand, it is possible that the various parties behind the parallel economy could seize these opportunities to add to the chaos and be the instigators of the thefts and looting in order to integrate it into their business later on.

If this outcome and the health crisis intensifies as a result of the general disorganization and order cannot be restored, the army would probably have to come into confrontation with the agitators and this could only further exacerbate the conflicts, potentially leading to the risk of secession and/or a state of emergency in which the army would become much more involved in the political game.

In order to avoid such an overflow, the government must now start an awareness campaign aimed at preparing public opinion and the country’s population for the worst (without hiding behind a discourse of control that will only make things worse if things get out of hand). Panic must certainly be avoided, but it would still be better before the health crisis starts than when all the forces in the country are already overwhelmed by the management of such a health crisis.

The economic and food support mechanisms put in place for the most economically fragile must be thought of in the least humiliating way possible because the beneficiaries, for the most part, are normally employed and do not beg. It is the health crisis that has placed them in this situation and those who provide them with economic and food aid and support must be trained not to despise them.

Local and regional officials (public authorities but also private, businesspeople and associations) must be empowered and integrated into the mechanisms so that they are as inclusive as possible.

Furthermore, it is necessary to set up mediation mechanisms between the army and the populations where the divisions will be deployed in order to establish a dialogue now and ensure that the positive image of the army is maintained in these difficult times.

Lastly, the State must relentlessly and without delay repress any behavior of civil disobedience and/or failure to respect the exemplary nature of the civil service within its ranks. Any tolerance of behavior that disregards the office of the public service and any tolerance of behavior that does not respect integrity and the fact that the public service is there to serve the citizens will only bring more incivility and civil disobedience among the citizens, leading to our downfall.

2) The survival scenario:

The health crisis has been anticipated to its full extent. Psychological preparation is nationally orchestrated. Citizens are prepared to face the trials that await them. International aid is mobilized intelligently and commensurate with the health crisis; hospital equipment, medical personnel and resources are mobilized in time and make it possible to absorb the shock of the health crisis with an acceptable threshold of psychological damage. Food and economic support mechanisms are put in place under acceptable conditions and in a dignified manner.

Once the crisis is over, Tunisia will get through it with its integrity intact. The global economic crisis that will follow this health crisis will be a terrible challenge for the country, which will find it difficult to recover.

3) The Kairos scenario, one of opportunity:

In this hypothesis, it is assumed that the minimum described in the recommendations to avoid the worst-case scenario and in the recommendations to achieve the survival scenario have been achieved. The challenge of this scenario is to make people feel that despite the terrible threat facing our country, this crisis is a major opportunity (like most crises) to accelerate the transformations that the country needs to enter the 21st century.

During the health crisis, the newly appointed government officials can make a great simplification of their administration (real auditing is finally possible) and digitization can finally happen in the administration and in all public services that were hitherto trapped by paper and the physical presence of citizens. At last, the legalized signature and all archaic administrative procedures can finally be put to an end in order to prevent the country from sinking because of containment.

Moreover, in view of the economic crisis that will follow, it is a matter of the country’s economic survival to prioritize and strengthen the economic actors who are part of the digital economy and the mechanisms for liberalizing the currency are put in place with the possibility for all Tunisians to pay online. The moment of confinement is used as an opportunity to set up digital training on national channels, a moment when citizens are captive.

In addition, the establishment of emergency economic support mechanisms can also provide an opportunity to reduce the gap between the informal and formal economies through awareness-raising and by outsourcing these support mechanisms to civil society organizations whose core business is precisely to provide financial literacy to fragile populations and to lead these populations towards a formal economy.