Tunisia suspends Covid-19 vaccine 'Open Days' after high demand causes long queues and tension

Against the backdrop of a worsening Covid-19 health situation in Tunisia, the government launched an extensive vaccination campaign on Tuesday, July 20, as the country marked Eid al-Adha. Throughout the day, long queues formed in front of vaccination centres, causing tension and even violence in some cities. The initiative, which was supposed to continue the following day, was therefore suspended.

Several images posted on social media show the long queues in front of vaccination centres in Tunisia on July 20, as these photos taken in Rades show.
Several images posted on social media show the long queues in front of vaccination centres in Tunisia on July 20, as these photos taken in Rades show. © Facebook

The two Covid vaccine ‘open days’ were only announced by authorities on Monday, July 19. Some local press outlets warned it would lead to disaster, as 29 vaccination centres only had one day to prepare before welcoming all Tunisians over the age of 18 without an appointment system in place.

Several images were shared online on the morning of Tuesday, July 20 showing the long queues in front of vaccination centres that were only supposed to open at 1pm.

'Organisers had already distributed the tickets numbered from 1 to 1,000'

Faced with high demand, some centres quickly became overwhelmed. In Rades, a southern Tunis suburb, Omar (not their real name) took videos of long queues waiting in front of the city's only vaccination centre. He arrived at 12.30pm, but was unable to get a ticket to get vaccinated.

We arrived as planned but we were surprised to find that [the organisers] had already distributed tickets numbered from 1 to 1,000 from early in the morning.

We were told that there were no vaccines available. It was a bad experience, especially because of the risk of getting contaminated [due to the crowds]. I might return to get vaccinated at some point if it is organised with an appointment system.

'I understand people's frustration, but it was apocalyptic'

As soon as the centre opened, some patients tried to force their way in. Video footage taken by volunteers inside the centre shows nurses blocking the main door. At around 3pm, the door gave way. Amina (not their real name), a health worker, was there as a volunteer to help with the drive:

I had predicted that because of Eid, there would not be enough staff and that we would need reinforcements. Tuesday was total chaos, the centre was supposed to open at 1pm. But I heard that people came at about 6am.

When I arrived, it was impossible to get in, there was a crowd, it was a rush. There was no security and only one door. The volunteers were overwhelmed. We called the police, who were also overwhelmed. In the meantime, we tried to get on with vaccinating.

When we let people in, we struggled to close the door behind them. It was very difficult to get the vaccinated people out of the centre, because as soon as we opened the door, people rushed in. Some of the volunteers panicked and had anxiety attacks. Eventually the door completely fell open and we had to close the centre at around 4pm, before the vaccinations were completed. 

So far, the vaccinations have been taking place depending on age. We have reached the threshold of the over 50s, so people aged between 18 to 50 were demanding to get vaccinated. This is bad management. I understand people's frustration, but it was apocalyptic.

In some centres in other parts of the country, the vaccination process took place more smoothly, such as in the north-eastern city of Ariana, where the president of the regional council of the Tunisian Medical Association, Lamia Kallel, praised the "3,500 doses" delivered "in six hours" in a Facebook post.

'The problem was that the communication happened too late'

In Nabeul, in the north-east of Tunisia, the vaccination day was also a success. Mohamed Ameur Stambouli, who is in charge of projects and activities in a local association, volunteered to help organise the vaccination campaign. He believes that it was the mobilisation of civil society that made it possible to respond to the emergency: 

We vaccinated 1,053 people. The centre was scheduled to open at 1pm, but we started at 8am by distributing numbered tickets and asking people to come back at a certain time to avoid queues. We stayed until around 10pm. In Nabeul, it was civil society that took charge of the organisation and was able to avoid what the government's decision could cause. The problem was that the communication happened too late.

In Nabeul, in the north-east of Tunisia, the vaccination day, which was open to all, too place peacefully.
In Nabeul, in the north-east of Tunisia, the vaccination day, which was open to all, too place peacefully. © Mohamed Ameur Stambouli / Facebook.

Health Minister sacked, vaccine candidates sent home

After Tuesday’s vaccination drive, the government sent out mixed messages. In a press release delivered at around 5pm, the Health Ministry announced that the second day of vaccination for Eid al-Adha would be reserved for 40-50 year olds to "avoid excessive crowds". 

However, later that evening, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi sacked Tunisia’s health minister Faouzi Mehdi, who had initiated the vaccination drive, which was then suspended. 

On Wednesday, July 21, the 29 vaccination centres were therefore closed to the public. But in Nabeul, Mohamed Ameur Stambouli still went to one of the centres to warn uninformed residents who were queuing with hopes of receiving the vaccine: 

The numbers for today [Wednesday, July 21] had already been distributed. People were mad as hell.

Since June 20, authorities have imposed a total lockdown on six regions and a partial lockdown in the capital, as Tunisia faces a resurgence of the virus, driven by the Delta variant. 

Faced with shortages of oxygen, medical staff and resuscitation beds, the country has launched an appeal for international assistance.

Fewer than a million people have been fully vaccinated in Tunisia, around eight percent of the population, and the caseload has surged to one of the highest in Africa.