KESRA, Tunisia — Soldiers hold rifles to guard the health center in the traditional Tunisian village of Kesra, while inside, military medics use other weapons to combat COVID-19: vaccines.
Tunisia is facing its worst coronavirus surge since the pandemic began, further stressing the North African country’s already crowded hospitals and health system. That has forced some regions to go back into lockdown and prompted waves of donations of vaccines or medical aid from China, France, Turkey, Italy, the United Arab Emirates and Algeria.
Tunisia’s government decided to deploy the armed forces to vaccinate people in the regions with the worst infection rates and in areas with particularly low vaccination rates.
At the Kesra medical center this week, military doctor Riadh Allani said the turnout for shots “is satisfactory, but it is weak compared to the big cities where the news spreads quickly and people come.”
“Here, many citizens face difficulties to reach the vaccination center, so we are ready to extend our stay to give an opportunity for everyone to come,” Allani told The Associated Press. He said the medics would with local authorities to vaccinate people at home, if necessary,
Over the past month, confirmed cases in Tunisia have reached their highest daily numbers of the pandemic, but the nationwide vaccination rate remains low, according to data from John’s Hopkins University. Tunisia has reported Africa’s highest per-capita pandemic death toll and is currently recording one of the world’s highest daily per-capita infection rates, the data indicate.
Military health workers vaccinated thousands of people in Kesra and other sites in the Siliana region in central inland Tunisia, mainly individuals over age 60 with underlying health conditions. The campaign in Kesra used Sinovac vaccines from China.
The military said the medical deployment could be extended to other areas in the coming days. Tunisia’s president said the military would send helicopters to mountainous areas to bring vaccines to remote villages.
Kesra resident Rafika Achour said she was summoned twice to get a vaccine, but had been skeptical about submitting to a shot.
“When I heard of the arrival of the army, I decided to come for the vaccine because … for me, (the army) is more honest than others,” Achour said at the vaccination site.
To encourage vaccination and build awareness, Tunisian President Kaies Saied got his first dose of the vaccine on Monday.
Meanwhile, aid is arriving from near and far.
The United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Algeria have sent hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses and medical supplies to Tunisia. A shipment of medical aid came in by sea from Italy on Friday. France this week promised another 800,000 COVID-19 vaccines, and China promised 400,000, according to Tunisia’s TAP news agency.
As of Saturday, Tunisia had reported more than 17,000 deaths and more than 533,000 confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins data.
Yesica Fisch in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.
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