Covid-19: ‘We need food’: Tunisians struggle under coronavirus lockdown

Last week, desperation gave way to anger as hundreds of people marched in front of their local government offices in different parts of the country, demanding an end to the lockdown and access to the financial aid the prime minister had pledged last month. A number of similar protests against the lockdown also erupted in late March.
“People came out spontaneously – hunger made them go protest,” said Marwan Jelassi from his home in Cite Ettadhamen, a working-class neighbourhood in north Tunis. “They went to the local governor’s office, but it was closed … all of them are people who lost their source of income.”

The 32-year-old plumber ran out of savings soon after the lockdown began and has not worked since. “On TV they say they will take care of you and provide you with a solution, but in reality public offices are closed and there is no one to tell you how or what to do, this is what led to people getting angry and protesting,” he explained.

These days, Jelassi stays at home with his wife and six-year-old son and tends to his plants. When he does leave the house, he is careful to avoid the landlord. “He wants me to pay the rent and I cannot afford it for now.”

Like many other daily-wage workers, he can no longer afford to buy groceries for his family of three and now relies on his mother-in-law sending pasta, flour, milk and coffee.

“In such conditions you cannot work and cannot even borrow money … there will be a catastrophe, people can’t stand it anymore, hunger leads to catastrophes,” said Jelassi.

Not far from Jelassi’s home, in Cite Bassatine, 36-year-old construction worker Mohammed Ghodhbane blames government inaction and the marginalisation of low-income areas like his own.

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“[Politicians] only remember us when there are elections,” he said. “They come, they give us support and want us to vote for them but now we don’t mean anything to them … [we] are just numbers to them.”

Despite being asthmatic and at greater risk of complications related to the coronavirus, Ghodhbane says he cannot afford to stay at home and instead continues to take to the streets in search of a daily wage so that he can provide food for his family.

“We need food and solutions, we will die if this continues, at least the virus is curable but what can we do for the hunger?”

On Monday, a video circulated on social media showing President Kais Saied distributing aid packages to families. The president, who was elected in October, based much of his campaign on his austere persona amid a corrupt political elite.

Impoverished Tunisian citizens gather with their identification cards in front of the headquarters of Mnihla delegation, in Ariana

In this file photo from March 30, several hundred Tunisians demonstrated in a working-class neighbourhood of Tunis, demanding promised government support and protesting the lockdown [File: Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Earlier this month, three heads of mutamadiyah – the Tunisian equivalent of a county – were removed from their posts. Local media speculated that the dismissals were related to the officials’ handling of financial aid

But some protesters said the dismissals made no difference to them.

“Now that they dismissed the local governor … they think that they resolved the problems. But nothing happened, today we are still in the streets and we still need the same requests,” said Mongi Bayar.

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