On Saturday, October 30, around 30 people in downtown Tunis protested the President’s new decree mandating vaccination passes for all public spaces by the end of 2021. It’s one of several small protests that have occurred around the issue in both Tunis and other cities.
“Forcing us to get vaccinated and usurping our rights and bodily sanctity is a dictatorship,” 55 year old Nejjia Ajmi, a civil servant, told Meshkal/Nawaat. “It is my right to reject the vaccine, but also I can’t lose my job.”
The new law, Decree-Law 2021-1, issued on October 22, sets up a legal framework for an official health pass, similar to the one France set up in July under its law 4416. In the Tunisian version, article six of the law allows suspending public sector employees who do not comply. Article seven lays out punishment for anyone entering public offices without the pass in accordance with Penal Code articles 125 and 127—which give a year of prison and a fine for insulting or assaulting public officials, respectively. Article eight of the new decree law also allows officials to shut down businesses for up to 15 days for not complying with the vaccine pass mandate.
According to the Ministry of Health, the mandate will be officially enforced two months after the decree, starting December 22, 2021.
“This is our only hope to eradicate this virus,” Tarek Ben Naceur, the General Health Director for the Tunis region at the Ministry of Health, told Meshkal/Nawaat. “We believe in the vaccine efficacity. We are here to comfort and help you.”
But the anti-vaccinations protesters don’t seem to believe it, and there have been several protests against the law.
“Don’t touch our children;” “Decree No.1 is unjustified blackmail;” “No to mandatory vaccination;” “My body, my choice,” and “No to the pass of shame” are some of the slogans chanted during the protest on October 30, which took place from 12:00 to 14:00 in front of the National Theater on Habib Bourguiba Avenue.
Anti-vaccination movements have emerged around the world, creating a rising wave of demonstrations against compulsory vaccinations in the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Greece, Australia and many more along with Morocco and Tunisia.
Those who are opposed to the vaccine pass are opposed for diverse reasons. Some of those protesting focused on what they see as government overreach into the private lives and health choices of individuals. Others merely expressed their distrust of the Covid-19 vaccine and fear over losing their jobs.
“The problem today is no longer the violation of our rights, the problem lies in the fact that we no longer have power over our own bodies,” Amine Mbarki, a 22-year-old who identified himself as an activist with Amnesty International’s Tunisia section, told Meshkal/Nawaat. “Our problem is not with the vaccination as much as it is with its obligation. Tunisia has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in turn is considered a supra-constitutional law, and any chapter in the constitution or in presidential decrees that contradicts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is considered null or void. Therefore, compulsory vaccination is an illegal procedure,” Mbarki argued.
In response, Ben Naceur, the Tunis health director asserted that “the act of vaccination is not mandatory; what is mandatory is having the health pass.” But to get the health pass, vaccination is required for all except those who have medical conditions—those for whom getting vaccinated may worsen their health issues.
“Special cases with certain chronic diseases will be granted special passes that don’t require vaccination, like immunodeficiency for instance,” Ben Naceur explained. “The establishment of the health pass is the only way we can control the vaccination process. Millions around the world got their jabs already.”
While some protesters object to the government’s measure for violating their personal freedoms, there were also others at the anti-vaccination protest whose objections derived from conspiracy theories.
“Vaccination is a bioweapon that aims to reduce the world’s population,” Hayet Arbi, a conspiracist at the protest told Meshkal/Nawaat. “The governments want to control and track us through implanting microchips in our bodies.”
Some other elaborate conspiracy theories around the world include that the vaccines will alter DNA, creating deformities and long-term complications for generations.
Dr. Hechmi Louzir, director of the Pasteur Institute and member of the State’s scientific committee combatting Covid-19 explained to Meshkal/Nawaat what the vaccine actually does.
“What is given to the body is a set of genetic instructions through the injection of a genetically modified virus that was treated to be harmless. The treated virus teaches the body how to create antibodies and develop an immune response to the real virus,” Louzir told Meshkal/Nawaat, adding as an aside that people who refuse to get vaccinated and believe in conspiracies are “ignoramuses.”
Tunisia’s health authorities have responded to concerns about vaccines by noting that all medications may have some negative side effects.
“Give me one medication or a vaccine that has no side effects! We can’t possibly put people’s lives in danger by giving them medications that can exacerbate their cases. Usually the advantages exceed the undesirable disadvantages. We insist on the efficacity of the vaccine and guarantee that there are no long term complications,” Ben Naceur, the Tunis health director said. “The first 24 hours—like any other vaccine—we get fever and some pain in the vaccination spot and that proves that bodies are reacting to the vaccine.”
According to Dr. Ben Naceur, some unreliable sources are dramatizing the side effects of vaccines on social media, causing hysteria among some who become anti-vaxxers.
This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Meshkal and Nawaat.