Blog post by Dr Saerom Han and Rania Houiji 27.3.2020
COVID-19 and Public Transport in Tunisia
˜I was scared of the virus particularly when I took bus. I used to be feeling bad because of harassment, but now the virus is more threatening than harassment. When someone slightly touched my hand, I felt myself dead and cried for no reason. I started using collective taxi or private taxi because they are safer than bus…” (Fatma, woman in her 20s living in Tunis)
As the situation with COVID-19 was getting worse in Tunisia, Fatma, who is quoted above, stopped using taxis and started commuting to work via a private bus rented by her company for workers. She is one of many Tunisians who, while wanting to stay at home, has to go continue to work because she lives from hand-to-mouth. Many Tunisians have no choice other than to take overly crowded public means of transport, despite the current danger of being infected, because of not being able to afford a car or private taxi.
The number of the COVID-19 cases in Tunisia has been rising continuously since the first case was confirmed on March 2, 2020. The government reported 114 infection cases with four deaths as of March 25, but the actual number of cases is likely to be far higher than what was reported given Tunisia’s limited testing capabilities. So far it has only carried out 69 tests per million people. Like many other countries, Tunisia’s medical infrastructure is poorly prepared for infection control and treatment as marked by the presence of only three hospital beds per 1,000 people. The state is trying to prevent further spread of the virus mainly through social distancing measures. Two days after the state decided to close borders for all commercial travels and ban public events and gatherings on March 16, it also imposed a two-week curfew between 6pm and 6am to restrict the mobility of people.
Many doctors have warned against the risk of the spread of the virus via buses and metros as they are so over-crowded. The interview data [collected prior to the arrival of COVID-19] in our ˜Youth Engagement and Skills Acquisition within Africa’s Transport Sector” project in Tunis supports this concern. Many public transport workers and passengers alike complained about the shortage of buses and metros particularly in peri-urban areas. The interview data also indicates that public transport in general is not hygienic, and is poorly managed and unsafe.
Amid the growing concern about the safety of passengers and workers, the public transport sector initiated several measures to combat the spread of infection. The Ministry of Transport and Logistics said that all public transport modes will be sanitized regularly and encouraged people to avoid unnecessary travel. In accordance with the government’s curfew decision, the national public transport company TRANSTU announced that it will provide 160 additional buses and 17 additional metro trips during the late afternoon time in order to avoid peak-time congestion during the curfew hours. However, the sudden imposition of curfew created chaos at bus and metro stations as they became much more crowded than usual with people trying to head home before 6pm. Although public transport companies attempted to prevent high congestion, metros, buses and collective taxies were severely overloaded and delayed.
The dire situation of public transport is making not only passengers but also transport staff vulnerable to the infection. Criticizing the authorities’ slow response to the pandemic, a representative of metro conductors, Rachid, said that all public transport in Tunis must stop operating if they are to protect their staff and passengers. On March 20, he called for the general lockdown of the country via his Facebook post, warning that metro workers will stop working if the government fails to do so. The situation with buses is even worse as, unlike metros, bus drivers and ticket sellers have to share the space with passengers. TRANSTU has recently installed ad hoc plastic curtains to protect drivers.
As the situation with COVID-19 evolved, Tunisia finally entered into a two-weeks of general quarantine on March 22 with the exception for those who work in vital sectors including security, health, water, electricity and public transport. Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh announced that only around 15% of Tunisians who work in vital sectors are allowed to go out for work, and military and police officers will be deployed on streets to control the mobility of people. However, all Tunisians can leave their house for a short walk and for grocery shopping.
Following the government’s decision, TRANSTU reduced the service of metros and buses to every 30 to 45 minutes. It still remains to be seen whether public transport will meet the needs of citizens while limiting the spread of the virus. But, the picture below, widely circulated on social media on the first day of the nationwide lockdown, reflects the current challenges and limitations of the public transport sector in Tunisia.