Ageing Tunisian hospitals battling coronavirus get an upgrade

After years of underfunding, doctors say the virus may have brought renewed attention to their years of demands for investment

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After a month of lockdown, Tunisian hospitals have not so far suffered the overcrowding some feared from coronavirus – but the pandemic has forced a much-needed upgrade of public facilities, medics say.

The intensive care ward at Abderrahmane Memmi hospital near Tunis – where the most serious Covid-19 cases are treated – has received a total of 29 patients since the start of the pandemic in March, 11 of whom have died.

In total Tunisia has reported 38 deaths from the respiratory disease, a toll that has remained stable in recent days.

Since the critical care unit at Abderrahmane Memmi was reserved for coronavirus patients, there have been fewer patients than usual.

"Compared to March, there are fewer appointments, fewer patients arriving in a serious condition or otherwise, fewer emergency calls and house calls," said the deputy head of the facility Jalila Ben Khelil, a doctor who also sits on the government's scientific commission.

She lauded the country's lockdown measures, describing them as "courageous", and said research was underway to see what factors had driven a stabilisation of the figures.

Ms Ben Khelil noted that epidemiological data indicated that the situation was being brought under control, but cautioned that "we cannot say we have passed the peak."

Samia Ayed, a doctor working in intensive care, said "we have been well equipped with protective gear" and specialist equipment.

However, Ms Ayed acknowledged that "we are not equipped for thousands of sick patients".

After logging fewer than 1,000 cases since the start of March, the government has declared that the lockdown will be eased from May 4.

Mohamed Besbes, who runs the Abderrahmane Memmi facility, sounded a cautious note.

"It is very difficult to analyse the situation and reducing the lockdown will have to be very incremental," he said.

For Ms Ben Khelil, the coronavirus pandemic has forcibly engineered a much needed upgrade to the public health system.

"In recent years, we repeatedly sounded the alarm" about the deficiencies of the public health system, she said, as the country navigated a near-decade-long democratic transition.

"The upgrading of certain hospitals, the equipment we have been able to acquire, the [improved] behaviour of health professionals... will surely have a positive impact on health", she noted.