The new, more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus is sweeping across Tunisia and pushing the healthcare system to its limits.
Complete lockdowns have been declared in several regions as hospitals overflow with patients and case numbers continue to increase.
Tunisia is now the African nation most affected by the pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation.
The seven-day average number of new cases in Tunisia passed 5,400 – a sharp rise from an average of about 800 a day in May – with a total of 447,161 cases and 15,482 deaths. The average seven-day death toll now exceeds 100 a day.
The overall test positivity rate in Tunisia hovers around 30 per cent, with some regions returning up to 50 per cent positive tests in a given day.
Public hospitals in greater Tunis reached saturation point for intensive care patients on Sunday. As a stopgap measure, the Health Ministry transferred critical patients to hospitals in the country’s interior, said Naoufel Somrani, director general of Public Health Structures at the Health Ministry.
But, he said, with case numbers increasing each day there would soon be no beds left. The Health Ministry on Monday reported that 91.8 per cent of intensive care beds and 79.60 per cent of oxygen-fitted beds in public hospitals were occupied.
Field hospitals are being erected in some of the hardest-hit interior regions, which lack hospitals and treatment centres.
Images and video on social media show hospitals crammed with patients, with beds lining hallways and waiting rooms, and some patients with oxygen masks sitting in folding chairs. Appeals on Twitter and Facebook to help family members find oxygen echo those issued during the wave of the Delta variant that devastated India this spring.
In an interview with Mosaique FM, Dr Nizar Ladhari, president of the medical commission of the Charles Nicolle hospital in Tunis, said that hospitals were in dire need of more beds and oxygen to support their patients.
“What worries me is that the number of patients is likely to double in the next two weeks,” he said.
Tunisia’s vaccine campaign has lagged significantly.
Only 553,000 of Tunisia’s more than 11 million inhabitants have been fully vaccinated. The inoculation campaign began in March. Vaccine hesitancy and misinformation are high.
Despite the critical condition of the healthcare system, the government is wary of declaring a full lockdown.
On June 29, the scientific committee that advises the government on the pandemic suggested a full six-week lockdown to stem the tide of infections and prevent a collapse of the healthcare system. But ministers demurred, claiming another lockdown of that length would be impossible to sustain, economically and socially.
Instead, a series of smaller lockdowns aimed at the hardest-hit regions were put in place, including a full lockdown in greater Tunis for the next two weekends to combat overcrowding on beaches and in public areas.