Tunisia extends lockdown by two weeks, releases prisoners

The lockdown extension came hours after a protest by several hundred Tunisians who demanded government support.

Tunisia will extend a lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus by two weeks to April 19, the presidency said in a statement on Tuesday.

Tunisia has confirmed 362 cases of the coronavirus and nine deaths and has imposed a general lockdown for over a week, preventing people from leaving their homes except to buy necessities or work in certain jobs.

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The announcement came after several hundred Tunisians demonstrated in a working-class district of the capital, demanding government support and protesting the current week-old lockdown against the coronavirus pandemic that has disproportionately impacted the poor.

“Never mind coronavirus, we’re going to die anyway! Let us work!” shouted one protester.

“Let me at least bring bread home for my children,” the bricklayer told the AFP news agency.

In poor areas like Mnilha and Ettadhamen on the outskirts of Tunis, healthcare facilities are limited and the many people who work as day labourers are without income because of coronavirus containment measures.

“I haven’t worked in 15 days,” a woman named Sabiha said.

On Monday, angry residents marched to the local government office to demand welfare payments and permits to leave their homes. Some even blocked roads and burned tires.  

Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh announced on March 21 a $52m economic support package for those worst affected by the lockdown but did not say when it would be distributed.

Then on Monday, the Ministry of Social Affairs announced that payments would be distributed from March 21 until April 6, causing a rush to local government offices to register.

“We’re trying to tackle the epidemic. But every day, it’s the same and they’re gathering in front of the office,” Mnilha councillor Imed Farhat told AFP.

“We’re asking law enforcement to intervene. But what can we do? We have to listen to them.”

Violating curfew

The coronavirus pandemic has halted tourism, a key sector for Tunisia, and numerous businesses and non-essential activities have been closed since March 4.

In the meantime, police have arrested 1,119 people for violating the nighttime curfew in place since March 17 and 242 for violating lockdown orders in place since March 22, interior ministry spokesman Khaled Ayouni said.

He did not say how many were still detained.

On Tuesday, the presidency announced it would release 1,420 prisoners in an amnesty to alleviate crowding in prisons.

According to the statement, President Kais Saied also ordered increased sanitation measures in jails.

Saied last week ordered the army to deploy in the streets to force people to respect the lockdown. 

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