Tunisia vaccinates more than half a million in open call drive

Nearly 5% of the population were inoculated in a single day

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Despite a rocky start and some technical difficulties, Tunisia's health ministry announced on Sunday it had vaccinated more than half a million people — nearly 5% of the population — in the country’s second open-call vaccine drive.

The initiative, launched by President Kais Saied in the days after he seized all political power in the country, came on the heels of a disastrous attempt at handing out jabs at walk-in centres over the Eid al-Adha holiday last month when thousands turned up in the heat for what turned out to be just a few hundred available doses.

The outcry from that ill-fated drive, along with agony over a deadly fourth wave of Covid sweeping Tunisian hospitals and claiming hundreds of lives a day, were driving factors in the July 25 protests that spurred Mr Saied's consolidation.

Early in Sunday’s drive the initiative seemed fated to repeat history.

At a middle school in Mornag, a rural town 40 kilometres south of the capital, hundreds of elderly people crowded in the dusty courtyard waiting in the 34°C heat to be vaccinated. Many had arrived hours earlier, coming from towns and villages in the surrounding mountains. There were no tents or chairs set up at the vaccination centre; dozens of people in their 80s and 90s leaned on canes or younger relatives who had accompanied them.

“They should have learnt from the catastrophe over Eid,” said Saied Chamakh. “This isn’t the operation of someone who has things under control.”

While the crowd grew impatient outside, sweating in the heat, dozens of volunteer nurses, doctors and pharmacists were exasperated inside because they could not administer shots. The internet was down, yet health workers were required to upload each patient's details to the country’s Evax online platform.

“We had a plan to vaccinate 4,600 people here today,” said Mohamed Ali Saiedi, a volunteer scout master with the Tunisian Scouts who was running the vaccine site.

“But we’ve been open more than 90 minutes and have only managed to vaccinate 100 people because of problems with the internet connection.”

Evax proved to be a hurdle for many in trying to get their shot. Dozens of people were turned away for not having a registration number from the online platform and, without smartphones, no way to get one on the spot.

But at centres across the country, resourceful volunteers from youth groups, the Tunisian Scouts, the Red Crescent and others soon took matters into their own hands.

At a vaccine centre in the central coastal city of Sfax, a group of high school pupils sat with patients who had not yet registered on Evax and swiftly filled out forms on their own smartphones for them. Others created Wi-Fi hotspots to provide internet connections.

Hinna Massmoudi, 28, said it just made sense to help get the system flowing. “We’re trying to give out 5,000 shots today,” she said. “If someone hasn’t filled out their forms it is just as easy for us to do it for them.”

After the initial kinks were worked out, and the morning rush died down, things moved smoothly at the centre in Sfax, she said. By 1.30pm they had administered about 950 doses.

Yousef Chakroun, 54, said he only had to wait 15 minutes for his AstraZeneca shot. He said it was the right thing to do: “Keeps us all safe.”

In the capital, nearly 40,000 doses were doled out at dozens of clinics, Tarek ben Naceur, the Tunis regional health director, told The National. "That's more than we can usually administer in an entire week," he said.

Tunisia started vaccinations in March, but the effort was halting, with just 8 per cent of the population vaccinated as of last week. A lack of coordination, limited doses, few staff, and high vaccine hesitancy all contributed to the sluggish effort.

But Sunday’s drive seemed to cut through the problems faced earlier in the campaign.

Prompted by the dire Covid-19 situation in Tunisia, countries including the US and UAE donated millions of vaccine doses in recent weeks.

Nursing and medical students were recruited to volunteer to give shots - a move health experts had been calling for to handle earlier staffing problems when only registered nurses or physicians administer doses.

At the centre in Sfax, Farouk Damak, a 20-year-old nursing student, volunteered to give shots on Sunday after spending months training in the Covid unit at Habib Bourguiba Hospital.

“It’s so hard to see what Covid does to the body,” he said.

His time in the ward deeply shaped his dedication to public health, Mr Damak said, particularly after he lost an 11-year-old boy to Covid in the spring.

“It hits you hard. In our profession you’re there for the extremes of life, birth and death, and it changes you.”

For several days in July, Tunisia led the world in deaths per capita, as hospital wards overflowed and bodies piled up in corridors outside morgues. The dire scenes seemed to have prompted many to overcome their hesitancy and show up for the vaccine on Sunday.

At the centre in Mornag, Najet, 60, said she was finally persuaded to get the vaccine by her son who “was worried about his mother.”

Ahmed Nursutlan, 78, said: “My family encouraged me — it was time.”

In Sfax, Mounira, 49, said after fretting over potential side effects, she decided to take the plunge. After getting her shot, she told The National, “This is a kind of beginning, of finally feeling some peace and not worrying what would happen to my kids if I died and left them alone. I feel a great sense of relief.”

Updated: August 16, 2021, 9:11 AM