Tunisia PM blasts 'mess' after sacking health minister

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Tunisia's government stumbled deeper into crisis on Wednesday over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, after premier Hichem Mechichi fired the health minister amid skyrocketing cases in the North African country.

Mechichi, whose office announced Faouzi Mehdi's sacking on Tuesday evening, slammed the minister's performance, pinpointing oxygen shortages at Tunisian hospitals and a slow rollout of vaccines.

"There's an extraordinary level of dysfunction at the head of the health ministry," Mechichi told health officials in footage published on his Facebook page late Tuesday.

Tunisia has been overwhelmed by Covid-19 cases, including nearly 18,000 people who have died in a country of around 12 million.

Hospitals have faced acute shortages of oxygen, staff and intensive care beds, and fewer than eight percent of the population are fully vaccinated.

Mehdi's sacking came a day after the start of a temporary opening of vaccination stations to all those over 18, to mark the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival.

But that inoculation drive led to stampedes at some of the 29 vaccination centres, where jab stocks quickly ran dry.

Mechichi slammed the hastily arranged programme as "populist" and "criminal".

"Neither the head of the government nor the governors nor the security services were aware" ahead of time, he said.

Analyst Selim Kharrat suggested that Mehdi had been made a scapegoat.

"There have been contradictory decisions, restrictions haven't been implemented, and there has been a failure to think ahead," he said.

- 'Ministers as fuses' -

The pandemic has hit Tunisia hard, with 1.4 deaths per 100,000 residents per day over the last week, placing the country second-worst globally on this metric after Namibia, according to AFP data from official sources.

Tunisia has also suffered the biggest absolute number of Covid-19 deaths in North Africa despite its small population.

And despite a slight drop in new cases per day in the past week, officials fear that metric could shoot up again as families gather for Eid celebrations.

Mehdi's sacking also follows a string of controversial government moves, such as authorising a July congress of the powerful UGTT union, while weddings and other gatherings have been banned.

Although a string of measures have been announced to cut the chain of Covid-19 transmission, they have been poorly enforced, with few wearing masks in public or respecting movement restrictions.

Meanwhile public anger at the government has mounted.

Over the weekend, a minister published photos of a luxury hotel and pool where the cabinet held a retreat -- a sharp contrast to a widely shared video of a hospital manager crying over the lack of oxygen.

The episode played badly with a population exhausted by a grinding economic crisis and mistrustful of the political class.

"We have a head of government who uses his ministers as fuses, to absorb any public dissatisfaction," Kharrat said.

"But how long can that last?"

- Dead left in wards -

Kharrat noted that the health ministry had warned in May over potential oxygen shortages.

Oxygen concentrators sent from France in early June are not yet fully operational due to bureaucratic delays.

Meanwhile Tunisia's decaying health facilities have been swamped by coronavirus patients.

In some cases, bodies of victims have been left lying in hospital wards next to other patients for up to 24 hours because there were not enough staff to organise transfers to overstretched mortuaries.

Tunisia's crisis has pushed countries from Gulf states to former colonial power France and even cash-strapped Mauritania to send aid.

The government of war-torn neighbour Libya in early July closed their shared border and suspended air links with Tunisia over the rocketing caseload.

Despite a decade passing since the 2011 revolution which overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia remains prone to chronic political turmoil that has stymied efforts to revive crumbling public services.

The country's fractious political class has been unable to form lasting, effective governments.

Since President Kais Saied was elected in 2019, he has been locked in a showdown with Mechichi and parliament speaker Rached Ghannouchi.

Their rivalry has blocked ministerial appointments and diverted resources away from tackling Tunisia's multiple economic and social problems.

Saied on Wednesday told the Alarabiya news channel: "The political pandemic in Tunisia is bigger than the coronavirus pandemic."