DISASTER MANAGEMENT

Innovation At The Heart Of The Covid-19 Crisis In Tunisia

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By Cyber Era Reporter

As of April 8, Tunisia had recorded 628 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 24 deaths, out of a global count of 1.5m infections and 88,000 fatalities.

The country recorded its first case on March 2, only days after Parliament approved the new government under Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh, on February 26.

In a bid to contain the virus outbreak, the government announced that passenger ferry services to Italy would be suspended on March 4, while flight, ferry and shipping activity with the country was further scaled back on March 9.

As of March 12, school classes had been suspended nationwide, which was followed the next day by the partial closure of cafes, restaurants and night clubs, and the suspension of collective prayers, conferences and cultural activities.

International flights were suspended and borders were closed on March 16, while on March 22 President Kais Saied ordered a full lockdown – preventing people from leaving their homes, except for medical reasons and to purchase necessities. While initially in place until April 4, it has since been extended to April 20.

To combat the social and economic impacts of the pandemic, on March 23 Prime Minister Fakhfakh announced that the government was setting aside TD2.5bn (US$860.3m) as part of a stimulus package. Measures included delaying tax debts, postponing taxes on small and medium-sized enterprises for three months, along with the allocation of TD300m (US$103.2m) in unemployment benefits and TD150m ($51.6m) in financial assistance for underprivileged families.

Although most economic activity remains on standby, businesses throughout the country are mobilising to support the government’s effort to combat the pandemic and meet the needs of its health care sector.

Capitalising on a well-established industrial sector

Thanks to a robust and diverse industrial base comprising more than 5300 companies and over 522,000 employees, Tunisia is well positioned to address the country’s needs for manufactured goods, particularly those destined for the health care sector.

“A number of companies, including foreign businesses, are already fully engaged in the fight against Covid-19, with contributions ranging from donations to redirecting production to supply the health care industry with medical gear and equipment,” general manager of the Foreign Investment Promotion Agency, Abdelbasset Ghanmi told OBG.

“Such initiatives clearly demonstrate the strong potential of Tunisia’s industrial base and, more broadly, its drive to unite the public sector, private sector and civil society in addressing the crisis.”

One of the companies involved in this effort is Consomed, a medical equipment manufacturer that is currently operating double shifts to produce 50,000 face masks daily.

Located in the governorate of Kairouan, 160 km south of capital Tunis, the company garnered international attention in late March after 150 employees opted to move to the factory’s dormitory facilities to self-isolate, as part of an effort to protect against the spread of the virus and ensure a continuation of operations.

 The increased production is significant given that on April 6 Abdellatif Mekki, the minister of health, announced that wearing protective face masks would be compulsory both during and after the lockdown period.

With over 1600 textile companies operating throughout the country, accounting for over 30 per cent of all manufacturing jobs, Tunisia is undoubtedly well positioned to take on the challenge of meeting demand.

“Tunisia’s textile industry has the know-how and capacity to address the needs of the health care sector in terms of protective clothing and face masks,” CEO of Sartex, Kamel Zarrad told OBG.

Located in the governorate of Monastir, Sartex is a local denim and sportswear manufacturer that has converted part of its production line to make face masks.

“Like most companies we are currently operating with reduced capacity. Recovery for most of the industry will need to take place in phases, all the while adhering to strict health and safety measures,” Zarrad said.

Leveraging technology and local skills

Building on its industrial successes, Tunisia has also in recent years been lauded for its investments in high-value segments such as electronics, engineering and technology, many of which are now supporting the fight against Covid-19.

In Beja, in the country’s north, engineers from German automotive parts manufacturer Kromberg & Schuber have developed face shields using 3D printing technology. Relying exclusively on existing raw materials and equipment, the company was able to produce around 30 pieces, all of which it donated to the regional hospital of Beja.

In a similar move, France’s Orange Foundation, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, has been supporting six Solidarity FabLabs in Tunis, Sfax and Gabes in the production of face shields for hospital staff, created by using laser-cutting machines. Sfax’s Djagora FabLab alone has been producing 1500 shields daily since March 20.

The Orange Solidarity FabLab concept targets young people aged 12 to 25 who have left conventional education and offers them the opportunity to pursue free training to develop digital and technological skills.

In another development to support medical staff, German automotive component supplier Dräxlmaier Tunisia donated a locally manufactured robot to Abderrahmen Mami Hospital in Tunis to assist patients with Covid-19 through telemedicine.

Named Veasense and produced by local start-up Enova Robotics, the robot allows the hospital’s health care staff to remotely conduct preliminary diagnoses and monitor patients without physical contact.

Furthermore, Enova Robotics is also the engineer of another innovation supporting the country in its fight against Covid-19.

First seen on the streets of Tunis on March 24, PGuard, a robot ground vehicle, was acquired by the Ministry of Interior to assist with the enforcement of the country’s lockdown rules.

The device, controlled remotely by Tunisian officers, includes infrared and thermal cameras, an audio system, a GPS, and a sound and light alarm system that allows officers to request identification papers and issue verbal warnings to those breaching lockdown rules.

Future prospects

To a great extent, Tunisia’s future economic prospects will depend on its ability to leverage its resources – notably its skilled labour force – to tackle the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, as well as its ability to get business up and running again.

“Tunisia needs to focus on putting a solid post-lockdown strategy in place in order to allow businesses to gradually and safely resume work,” general director at Kromberg & Schubert Tunisia, Wissem Badri told OBG. “This is particularly important for exporting industries such as the automotive components sector, especially as economic activity and international demand for Tunisian manufactured goods picks up again.”

Going back to work in post-lockdown Tunisia is expected to come with a number of changes, especially in regard to health and safety measures. Behavioural adjustments will need to be made as well as a great deal of awareness on the precautions to take when working and commuting.

Tunisia’s economy has struggled to resume pre-revolution growth levels, with annual GDP averaging 1.8 per cent between 2011 and 2019, against 4.4 per cent between 2005 and 2010.

While the country has seen investment levels evolve favourably in recent years and implemented encouraging legislation such as the Transversal Law and the Start-up Act, structural challenges such as its growing public debt, the devaluation of the dinar and dwindling foreign currency reserves are likely to be among some of the other pressing issues it will need to address as activity resumes.

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