When Hadda Chalbi received a call from the local hospital last week, she did not expect to be told that her only brother had set himself on fire and fallen into a coma.
Unemployed, physically disabled and with a child on the way, Hammadi Chalbi’s desperation had become too much to bear, leading the 32-year-old to self-immolate outside the local government offices in Maktar, some 160 kilometres (99 miles) southwest of Tunis.
The local administration had repeatedly declined to issue Hammadi a vendor’s permit, Hadda told Al Jazeera, which she attributed to favouritism within the local government.
Her younger brother wanted to work his way out of poverty, but instead was forced to rely on his seven sisters for his and his wife’s income.
“When you’re disabled and desperate what can you do?” lamented Hadda. “[Hammadi] cannot work, he has no source of income and is only getting money from his sisters. Is there a bigger desperation than that?”
Exasperation among Tunisia’s low-income families is not new. The country’s economy entered a period of decline following the removal of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in the 2010-2011 uprising, which had been triggered by the public self-immolation of a young street vendor.
According to World Bank data, Tunisia’s economic growth since 2010 has averaged 1.8 percent a year, significantly lower than annual averages had been in the previous decade. Under Ben Ali, unemployment reached a low of 12 percent in 2007, and at the height of the uprising in 2011, it surged to 18 percent. Last year, the figure was 15 percent.
Yet nothing had prepared families like the Chalbis for the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the government’s decision in late March to impose a two-week nationwide lockdown in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus. It has since been extended until April 19.
The lockdown has forced the closure of restaurants, hotels and offices, a ban on international flights and the closure of land borders, bringing an already struggling economy to a standstill. The International Monetary Fund on Friday said it expected Tunisia’s economy to contract by 4.3 percent in 2020, in what would be the deepest contraction since it declared independence in 1956. But for a country with a fragile healthcare system, prevention is being treated as the lesser of two evils. Tunisia has confirmed 699 cases of COVID-19 and 25 associated deaths.
In an attempt to mitigate the effect of the measures on businesses and head off potential social unrest, Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh announced in late March that 2.5 billion dinars ($850m) would be allocated to combat the social and economic effects of the crisis.