For Those Hurt by Covid Lockdowns, Government Offers Little Help

Sidi Bahri market in Tunis on Saturday, May 1, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek

As a new wave of Covid-19 infections hits the country, the Tunisian government announced new lockdown measures, restricting movement and forcing many small businesses to shut down. However, no official economic assistance plans were announced before the most recent lockdown measures, even though many have lost jobs or reduced working hours resulting directly from officially-mandated lockdown and curfew measures.

There have been no new direct cash payments to Tunisians suffering the economic fallout of the government’s Covid-19 measures since the early pandemic in March and April 2020. Since then, small businesses and employees alike have experienced economic repercussions from domestic travel restrictions, the hastily announced January 14-18, 2021 lockdown, as well as the most recent curfew and shutdown of “weekly markets” announced April 7, 2021.

“The government needs to wake up! It needs to see its people,” said Najeh, a 40-year-old father of three who lost his job as a waiter at a café in the Bab el Khadra neighborhood of Tunis during the first government lockdown last year.

When the café reopened after the initial lockdown, Najeh was able to get some shifts again—but only occasionally. He has since started selling homemade, baked goods on a street outside the Sidi Bahri market. Now, during Ramadan, with a curfew imposed at night, when many people would normally go out after breaking fast each day, Najeh has been unable to get even occasional shifts as a waiter anymore.

“The café usually hires four people…but now, since it will be open for just two hours, only one person will be working,” Najeh told Meshkal.

On April 7, the government of Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi had announced a nightly curfew of 7 p.m., meaning that most restaurants and cafes would be shut permanently during Ramadan. Two days later, President Kais Saied told Mechichi on camera that 7 p.m. was too early and suggested the decision be reviewed to take into account “the economic side, the social side.” On April 10, the government extended the curfew to 10 p.m., but a curfew for car use was set at 7 p.m. again on April 17.

Najeh told Meshkal that his landlord evicted him and his family, including a newborn daughter, when he was unable to pay rent after two months out of a job.

“I did not pay my rent, electricity and water bills as well…things accumulated on top of me,” Najeh said.

Two-Time Direct Cash Assistance—But Who Qualified?

In a statement to Tunisian National Radio in April, Mohamed Trabelsi, Tunisia’s Minister of Social Affairs, said that 1,174,000 Tunisian citizens benefited from the government’s direct cash assistance program for Covid last year, in March and April 2020.

That program gave two payments of 200 dinars to individuals via the post office, but qualifications for receiving the payment appear to include that the individual be “head of household”; that means that most of those 1,174,000 Tunisians the minister referred to likely benefited indirectly—through their head of household rather than directly from the State.

When Meshkal reached out to Maryem Hassen, the Ministry of Social Affairs’ Press Officer, on April 21 for more details on the government’s plans for economic assistance programs to those affected by the lockdown measures, Hassen advised Meshkal look at their website, which does not appear to be updated regularly; the Ministry’s Facebook page is, however, updated regularly, but it does not appear to provide details on eligibility requirements for cash assistance or any detailed plans or strategies for economic assistance. Hassen also directed Meshkal to speak with her colleague Raja Ben Brahim, responsible for issues relating to “vulnerable categories” for more information on eligibility. Ben Brahim did not pick up our phone calls.

Neither the Ministry’s official website nor its Facebook page appear to provide more details on social assistance eligibility criteria, distribution methods, appeals procedures, or policies for helping those affected by Covid.

Meshkal was able to learn more details about the eligibility criteria for direct cash payments made last year from Amine Aridhi, an “omda”–a special district-level representative–representing a small neighborhood in Bab Bhar. 

As an omda, Aridhi said his personal knowledge of applicants and their individual financial needs and conditions were crucial to informing the process of who received and who didn’t receive payments last year. He also explained that certain eligibility criteria were put forward by the government, such as no single people, no more than one person per household, and no household member who received CNSS–the social security program that comes with full-time employment. However, CNSS payments are made every three months, so if someone loses their job during that period, official records may indicate that person is still employed.

These rather strict criteria means that in Aridhi’s district of Bab Bhar, only 500 out of 17,000 applications were accepted, he said, adding that the amount barely covered the needs of registered families without incomes.

Najeh is one of those who applied for the cash payment after he lost his job, but he never received it.

“I applied and everything…They just tell you to wait for a text,” said Najeh, who did not indicate why he did not receive the payment.

Amine Miled, 34, an unemployed civic engineer from Sfax, said he did receive one of the two 200 dinar payments 20 days after applying, but he knows many others “worse” off who didn’t receive it.

“I don’t know, maybe it was luck,” Miled told Meshkal. “The system is not clear. My uncle, who works as a day laborer, did not receive it.”

Small Businesses Also Hurting

While laid off employees or employees with reduced hours have been directly hurt by the government’s lockdowns and curfews, small businesses have also been affected. They say that the government hasn’t done enough to address the economic impact of lockdown measures.

“As a State, if you make [public health] decisions, don’t kill me with hunger…Corona might kill me alone, but if you shut down my business, you kill me and my family and the people I am responsible for,” said Chiheb Yaakoub, President of the Sousse Cafés Union, which is a member of the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), the main national chamber of commerce.

“We are asking to work, which is our constitutional right…If you stop me [working], give me an alternative,” Yaakoub said.

Yaakoub said that café owners have been protesting and requesting to be included in the government’s decision-making process for lockdown measures, but he claimed they have been turned down every time.

Yaakoub also said that they requested postponements for repaying their loans, making CNSS payments, and electricity and water bills payments. However, he claimed few of these demands have been met and they have had to continue bearing most of their regular costs despite the losses.

“Everything is on us…for a year and a half we have been putting up with wrong and unstudied procedures,” Yaakoub said.

Yaakoub told Meshkal that the café sector provides income for 200,000 families, but that in the Sousse governorate alone, over 200 cafés have had to shut down since the first lockdown last year.

Belief That State is Bankrupt Reduces Expectations

The annual budget allocations of the Ministries of Defense and Interior both increased by double digit figures in 2016 and 2018, and in 2019 the Ministry of Defense’s budget allocation increased by 31.24 percent, according to infographics produced Marsad Budget, a project by the transparency watchdog group Al Bawsala.

In addition to this increased State spending on security in recent years, the State has also taken many steps during the pandemic specifically to reduce costs to businesses and defer tax and customs payments by up to seven years. The international accounting firm KPMG found that, as of April 2021, only $150 million out of Tunisia’s total $2.5 billion spending on Covid-19 measures was directed to “poor and special-needs families that supports family programs that require direct assistance to individuals directly affected.”

Yet, despite the public and institutional Covid spending detailed by KPMG or State spending on other sectors, some poor Tunisians believe that the State has no money to spend.

Mohamed Jbeli, who sells vegetables at Sidi Bahri market, said that due to reduced commerce and travel during the pandemic, he “barely makes” a living, as many people will do their shopping at places closer to their homes rather than venture to the market. Yet he doesn’t think the government needs to give more financial assistance to those, like himself, who are hurting financially.

“I do understand the situation…there is no money,” Jbeli said.

Miled, the engineer, echoed that sentiment.

“The state is weak. It does not have money, and it’s already good they gave us the 200 dinars…I do not think they would have been able to do more, I can’t imagine it,” he said.

For Aridi the omda, he believes more direct cash payments may be coming in the future, but that they depend on international financing.

Meshkal asked Fadhel Kaboub, associate professor of economics and president of the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity who has written extensively on public spending in Tunisia, why some Tunisians believe the State is unable to spend more.

“What you’re describing is a little bit of a Stockholm Syndrome where the victim is sympathizing with the abuser,” Kaboub told Meshkal. “This dominant narrative of: ‘Governments don’t have money to pay for certain things, and even pre-pandemic don’t have money to address climate change, poverty or unemployment or whatever social needs or health issues,’ has been so dominant that now, people who need resources the most have accepted the fact that the government doesn’t have money.”

As for the dependence on international financing, Kaboub explained that Tunisia’s external debt does mean that the Tunisian State has more limited capacity for spending.

“Now we’re in a situation where the Tunisian government’s sovereign State has lost its monetary sovereignty and became a user of this foreign currency. So that’s why you have people saying: ‘Well the government doesn’t have money.’ What they really mean is that it doesn’t have foreign currency reserves to get itself out of that trap of external debt,” Kaboub added.

But Kaboub also thinks that instead of being just a “Stockholm Syndrome” effect, ordinary people saying there’s no more money for spending could also be “a much deeper kind of statement of rebellion against the system, but that statement of rebellion is not articulated well enough.”

Without State Support, Communities Try Mutual Aid

Without State support, many of those hurting have turned to help from neighbors, private donors, and aid networks.

Mohamed Sallemi is the Tunis coordinator for an aid network set up during the first lockdown in March and April 2020 called Popular Solidarity Network. Sallemi told Meshkal that their campaign included the providing money, food, and medication for those who could not afford it because of the lockdown.

“Some people come to us and tell us they could not buy their medication, so we take charge of that. We posteabout it on our Facebook group and call friends we know to see if we know anybody who has medicine, or we collect funds to buy it instead,” Sellami told Meshkal.

This was particularly important during the lockdown since people suffering from chronic health conditions had hospital appointments postponed, meaning they lost access to free medications distributed at public hospitals and while pharmacies experienced some shortages.

The Popular Solidarity Network was set up by individuals identifying as leftist activists from different backgrounds and covered 12 Tunisian governorates.

“We believe that helping our people is a solidarity duty,” Sellami said. “We gathered names of people we knew were in need…names of waiters and people who work for businesses that shut down for instance…We try to provide for them a basket [quffa] that could cover a week’s basic needs.”

Sallemi told Meshkal that through their solidarity initiative, they were able to help about 150 families.

“Some people we helped did in fact receive the state’s 200 TND, but that amount would not even cover half of their rents…The 200 TND is not enough to cover one week’s expenses, for a family of four for example,” Sellami said, calling the aid measures a “masquerade.”

For Sellami, the direct cash payments made last year at post offices were extremely crowded, meaning that they put people who showed up to receive them at risk of contracting Covid-19. He also believes that the lockdown measures affecting economic activity without adequate assistance amount to repression.

“We can consider the state as violent, with decisions that we can almost describe as repressive, because when you punish someone by not allowing them to earn their daily bread, these are repressive measures,” Sellami said. 

In reference to the recent lockdown measures, Sallemi who also took part in recent January 2021 protests in Tunis, described the new lockdown procedures taken by the Tunisian government as “top down decisions that have nothing to do with the living reality of the Tunisian citizen.”

“The state is completely disconnected from the living reality of the Tunisian citizen,” Sellami said.