What could have been a banner day in Tunisia’s fight against the pandemic has instead ended in pandemonium followed by the sacking of the health minister for making "criminal" decisions.
After weeks of relentless cases of the delta variant thrashing Tunisia’s already weary healthcare system, the government announced on Monday its first walk-in vaccination drive over Eid Al Adha.
For two days, beginning on Tuesday at 1pm, anyone over the age of 18 could receive their first jab of the Sinopharm or AstraZeneca vaccines at one of 29 centres.
But by the time the doors of the hastily organised vaccine centres opened, chaos had erupted. Tightly packed queues stretched for kilometres in the heat and fights broke out as vaccine supplies quickly dwindled. Several locations in Tunis ran out of doses within the hour, according to those queuing.
TAP news agency reported that civil society leaders had to step in to manage crowds.
In the wake of the catastrophe, Tunisian Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi sacked Health Minister Faouzi Mehdi.
Mr Mechichi accused his minister of making "criminal" decisions that led to overcrowding and chaos at coronavirus vaccination centres.
The Minister of Social Affairs Mohamed Trabelsi has since been appointed.
Less than 5 per cent of Tunisia’s nearly 12 million inhabitants have been fully vaccinated, despite the country beginning its vaccine campaign in March. A struggle to obtain enough doses, combined with significant vaccine hesitancy, has hindered efforts.
With the latest deadly wave of the virus, many neighbouring nations have come to Tunisia’s aid with donations of medical supplies and vaccine doses. The UAE donated 500,000 doses earlier in the month and millions more have been given in recent days.
Yesterday’s failed vaccine drive was an attempt to put tens of thousands of those doses into the arms of Tunisians. It was the first time the jab was available to those under 40.
Public outcry at the failure was swift. Tunisians used social media to share images of the crowded vaccine centres and decry the government’s lack of foresight and planning.
“It could have been an historic day,” wrote one user on Twitter. “We should have felt proud that we had a ‘record for the highest number of Tunisians vaccinated in a single day'… This is total despair.”
Another wrote “I have the sense that they have so little regard for the people they’re supposed to rule that they thought only a few people would ever waste a day of Eid standing under the blazing sun to get vaccinated.”
The Health Ministry cancelled the second day of the vaccine drive, but promised to resume its efforts “at the best time, so as to avoid the noticeable overcrowding” experienced on Tuesday, according to a statement published on Facebook.