Hundreds of Tunisians defy lockdown to demand financial aid

Angry residents on outskirts of Tunis marched to local government office to ask for welfare payments and permits to leave homes

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Hundreds of Tunisians demonstrated in a working-class district of Tunis on Tuesday, demanding government support and protesting against a week-long lockdown.

Demonstrators said the measures to fight the coronavirus in the country disproportionately affected the poor.

“Never mind coronavirus, we’re going to die anyway. Let us work,” shouted one protester, a bricklayer.

“Let me at least bring bread home for my children.”

In poor areas such as Mnilha and Ettadhamen on the outskirts of the Tunisian capital, health care is limited and many day labourers have no income because of the coronavirus measures.

“I haven’t worked in 15 days,” Sabiha said.

On Monday, residents marched to the local government office to demand welfare payments and permits to leave their homes.

Some even blocked roads and burnt tyres.

Tunisia has reported 423 cases of Covid-19, including 12 deaths.

On March 21, Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh announced a 150 million dinar (Dh192.5m) economic support package for those worst affected by the lockdown, but did not say when it would be distributed.

On Monday, the Ministry of Social Affairs announced payments would be distributed from March 21 until April 6, causing a rush to local government offices to register.

The announcements came after the EU said it would send a €250m (Dh1.006 trillion) grant to help fight the virus and soften the socio-economic effects.

The bloc’s enlargement commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, pledged the aid in a call with Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Noureddine Erray, their joint statement said.

“We’re trying to tackle the epidemic but every day it’s the same and they’re gathering in front of the office," Mnilha councillor Imed Farhat said.

“We’re asking law enforcement to intervene. But what can we do? We have to listen to them.”

Police have arrested 1,119 people for breaching a night-time curfew that has been in effect since March 17, Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Ayouni said.

Another 242 people were arrested for breaching lockdown orders put in place on March 22, Mr Ayouni said.

He did not say how many were still detained.

“Anyone who breaks the security rules will be treated as a criminal because failing to respect rules within the context of the pandemic is a crime," Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi said.

As of last week, 412 cafes, bars and restaurants were forced to close.

A curfew between 6pm and 6am was enforced from March 18, and daytime restrictions took effect, allowing movement only in cases of “extreme necessity", such as work in critical sectors.

The army is assisting the police to enforce the restr ictions.

On Tuesday, the Tunisian presidency announced it would release 1,420 prisoners to alleviate crowding in prisons.

President Kais Saied also ordered measures to improve sanitation in jails.

The pandemic has halted tourism, a large sector for Tunisia, and businesses and non-essential activities have been closed since March 4.

Originally scheduled to end on April 4, the lockdown was extended for another 15 days on Tuesday evening.

That prolongs the lockdown to shortly before the start of Ramadan, when economic life normally slows and socialising increases.

Sitting at home, tens of thousands of Tunisians have been tuning in to watch actress Nermine Sfar belly dancing in her living room with the message: “Stay at home and I’ll dance for you."

Clad in a figure-hugging dress, Sfar shakes her hips and twirls to Arabic pop music in front of an incongruous brown sofa.

About 130,000 people watched one video live on her Facebook page.

Sfar was already popular on social media before the outbreak, with tens of thousands of followers.

On the first day she performed two weeks ago, before the lockdown was announced, she donned a surgical mask and gloves over her dancing costume and told everyone to follow government advice to stay at home as she prepared to perform.

Sfar's message appeared to get through where the pleas of politicians did not, drawing interest from tens of thousands of people and a cascade of humorous comments.

She then pledged a nightly “corona dance". When she failed to perform one night, thousands of messages went up from fans begging her to return to their screens.

Another dancer, Rochdi Belgassmi, started to perform his own home routines and also attracted tens of thousands of viewers.

“I know it is difficult to stay at home and be confined in one’s place, but we can try to create a warm atmosphere in our homes," Sfar told Reuters.