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The esplanade of the great mosque of Kairouan, a centuries-old monument, is deserted. Usually the place, which adjoins the medina, is an important traffic axis. But Sunday, June 20, the city in the center-east of the country and its periphery were reconfigured, like three other regions of northern Tunisia. At issue: a peak in deaths due to Covid-19 and the influx of patients in already saturated hospitals.
Since then, Kairouan has looked like a ghost city. A red poster representing the virus crossed out with the slogan “Solidaires contre le corona” was plastered on the walls that surround the old town. The stalls of the souks and markets were covered with tarpaulins. Only a few street vendors and essential businesses continue to work amid the noise of ambulances marching towards Ibn Jazzar hospital.
“It’s not everywhere like that, tempers Nizar Khlif, civil society activist and member of Kairouan Libre FM radio. Some cafetiers continue to work underground and, in one village, the authorities even had to stop a wedding that had taken place this week. “
For three weeks, the region has shown extremely high positivity rates (between 45 and 50%) of the 600 people tested daily, and an average of 8 to 10 deaths per day. In the emergency department of Ibn Jazzar hospital, Covid-19 patients are mixed with other patients: the influx of the last few days has been such that it has been impossible to sort out or to respect an adapted circuit.
” The situation is serious “
The words “Corona” and “Covid” were scrawled hastily on the doors of some departments. An attempt to isolate rooms from each other as much as possible and limit movement, but many patients and staff move freely. Some come from outside through a small French window to perform a test. In another room, old people, sometimes sitting on the floor with oxygen cylinders, await their transfer to other hospitals in the region.
” The situation is serious. However, we have warned for three weeks that, given the contamination figures, we were going to be exceeded. There was a lack of respect for barrier gestures, but also a very low vaccination rate. These two factors explain this new spread of the virus ”, explains Mohamed Rouis.
The regional health director also alerts on the presence of a new variant detected through cases of children and young people hospitalized. “Without pathology or comorbidity but which are found in very serious states”. That day, four infants were hospitalized and a 9-year-old child, suffering from an autoimmune disease, died Thursday, June 24.
“We are really overwhelmed: many doctors and nurses are also affected by Covid-19. I am afraid that we will run out of personnel within a few days ”, says a doctor from the emergency department, between two consultations. The head of the service, Mohamed Salem, admits that, due to a lack of sufficient caregivers, he cannot set up an organization adapted to the pandemic, namely a schedule of teams who would work several days in a row before confine and leave room for others. ” We need to strengthen the medical and paramedical teams, because it is impossible to manage », Hammers the doctor.
The tension is palpable
In the courtyard of the hospital, the governor of the city is in the midst of an argument with relatives of hospitalized patients, asking them to leave the premises. “I want police reinforcements! All those who are not sick have nothing to do here, just like those who do not wear masks ”, he said to a policeman. The tension is palpable: a few days earlier, demonstrators denounced his management of the health crisis and demanded his resignation.
The influx of families is not only due to indiscipline. The needs are such that many have come to volunteer to help the medical staff. At the field hospital installed in a sports complex in the city, the 57 beds equipped with oxygen are occupied. The relatives of patients come to feed their husband, wife or relative, take care of taking them to the toilet or washing them.
Adel Mena, a supervisor, admits that they had to let these families in because they only have four nurses for all the sick. “We try to make them respect the sanitary protocol, make them enter just the time to do these tasks, we have no other choice”, he specifies. The army has also set up tents and new beds to accommodate severe cases and then transfer them to military hospitals in neighboring areas.
Very few vaccinated
Among the factors explaining this new wave: the low vaccination registration rate in the Kairouan region (10%). At the city’s only vaccination center, people over the age of 70 are still receiving their first dose, as the campaign started in mid-March.
“There is a socio-cultural gap in Kairouan. Many old-timers living in the countryside have not been made aware of vaccination at all, nor do they have the logistical means to register or come to the center ”, explains Mohamed Liouane, radiologist in the private sector. Along with other doctors, he is trying to raise awareness about vaccination through his online community radio station, Al Hayet FM. The governorate of Kairouan has a poverty rate of 34.9%, double the national average, as well as an illiteracy rate of 35%.
The region’s health teams with the Ministry of Health announced the launch of a mobile vaccination campaign to reach out to remote regions. “Registration and vaccination will be done on site the same day, so that the person does not have to register on the Internet. We were not able to launch this before, because of logistical difficulties, in particular for the transport of vaccines which must be kept at a well defined temperature ”, explains Nadha Sarsour, in charge of the Kairouan vaccination center. As of June 22, only 37,000 people had received their first dose.
On Friday June 25, Hasna Ben Slimane, government spokesperson, announced tightening restrictions across the country in an attempt to curb this new wave. On the side of the Ministry of Health, we point to hospitals “90% full” and a high number of daily deaths (80 in the past week). The head of government Hichem Mechichi, who had received his two doses of vaccine in April and May, has tested positive for Covid-19, according to a press release from his services.