Tunisia health minister sacked as virus cases soar

Tunis (AFP) –


Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi sacked Tunisia's health minister on Tuesday, the premier's office said, as spiralling coronavirus cases weigh on the North African country's swamped health system.

Faouzi Mehdi's sacking came days after the ministry's spokeswoman said the health situation was overwhelming, with the pandemic causing more than 17,000 deaths in a population of around 12 million.

Mechichi's office, which has overseen a fractious cabinet rocked by ministerial resignations and tensions with President Kais Saied, announced Mehdi's sacking in a brief statement without giving a reason for the move.

It said Social Affairs Minister Mohamed Trabelsi would take over in a caretaker capacity.

Mehdi had initiated a temporary opening of vaccination stations to all Tunisians over 18 for Tuesday and Wednesday to mark the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival.

But that led to stampedes at some of the 29 vaccination centres, where jab stocks quickly ran dry.

The ministry announced it would continue the campaign over the coming days but then backtracked and restricted jabs to those aged over 40 on Wednesday to avoid a new rush.

Mehdi's sacking is another instance of instability in a government that has seen several ministers resign over tensions with parliament and the presidency.

Saied in January blocked a cabinet reshuffle, meaning the cabinet now includes caretaker ministers managing multiple dossiers.

Tunisians have lived through a decade of political turmoil and economic crisis since their 2011 revolution which overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, leaving vital public services crumbling.

The country's hospitals have faced oxygen shortages along with a lack of staff and ICU beds, pushing countries from Gulf states to former colonial power France and even cash-strapped Mauritania to send medical aid.

- 'Race against time'

Tunisia has also struggled to get its coronavirus vaccination campaign off the ground. Fewer than a million people have been fully vaccinated, around eight percent of the population, and the caseload has surged to one of the highest in Africa.

Pediatrician Rafla Tej Dellagi, at a vaccination centre in central Tunis, called the campaign a "race against time" and said the country needed to more than double its inoculation rate to cut the chain of transmission.

On Sunday, Tunisia reported 117 new coronavirus deaths and 2,520 new cases, bringing total recorded cases to more than half a million.

In some hospitals, the bodies of Covid victims have been left lying in rooms next to other patients for up to 24 hours because there were not enough staff to organise their transfer to overstretched mortuaries.

The health ministry's Facebook page said special field hospitals set up in recent months are no longer enough.

The government of war-torn neighbouring Libya in early July closed their shared border and suspended air links with Tunisia over the rocketing caseload.

Since June 20, authorities have imposed a total lockdown on six regions and a partial lockdown in the capital.