Hundreds of impoverished Tunisians protest coronavirus lockdown, demanding sorely needed government support

Hundreds of impoverished Tunisians protest coronavirus lockdown, demanding sorely needed government support
Working class Tunisians are the hardest hit by strict anti-coronavirus measures.
3 min read
31 March, 2020
In-need Tunisians were promised welfare support earlier this month [AFP]
Hundreds of Tunisians demonstrated in a working class district of the capital Tuesday, demanding the government provide support it promised and protesting a week-old lockdown against the coronavirus pandemic that has disproportionately impacted the poor.

"Nevermind coronavirus, we're going to die anyway! Let us work!" shouted one protester.

"Let me at least bring bread home for my children," the bricklayer told AFP.

In poor areas like Mnilha and Ettadhamen on the outskirts of the Tunisian capital, healthcare facilities are limited and the many people who work as day labourers are without income because of coronavirus containment measures.

"I haven't worked in 15 days," a woman named Sabiha said.

On Monday, angry residents marched to the local government office to demand welfare payments and permits to leave their homes. Some even blocked roads and burned tyres.

Ten days ago, Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh announced a 150 million dinar ($52 million) economic support package for those worst affected by the lockdown but did not say when it would be distributed.

Then on Monday the ministry of social affairs announced that payments would be distributed from March 21 until April 6, causing a rush to local government offices to register.

"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 told AFP.

"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 violating a night-time curfew in place since March 17 and 242 for violating lockdown orders in place since March 22, interior ministry spokesman Khaled Ayouni said.

He did not say how many were still detained.

Meanwhile the presidency announced on Tuesday it would release 1,420 prisoners in an amnesty to alleviate crowding in prisons.

According to the statement, President Kais Saied also ordered increased sanitation measures in jails.

Several other countries in the region have released prisoners or mulled amnesty measures in order to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 illness in overcrowded and often squalid jails.

Tunisia has officially reported 312 cases of Covid-19 since March 2, including 10 deaths.

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

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

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

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