July 13th 2020. 
At the beginning of July, VNG International interviewed Mayors from three foreign cities, as input for an item on international good practices with regard to COVID-19 in the VNG magazine. You will find the interview with Deputy Mayor Nabila Hamza from the city of la Marsa, Tunisia below. Information about the three interviews can also be found (in Dutch) in this article. 

Interview with Nabila Hamza, deputy-mayor of La Marsa, Tunisia, about local COVID-19 policies

1. How has your municipality been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic?

The Municipality of La Marsa has followed the devastation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic in Europe, with great interest. For example, in the affected countries of France and Italy, there is a large Tunisian community, part of which is originally from La Marsa. They would be likely to  spread the virus upon return to the country and city. This enabled the City Council at the end of March to anticipate the effects of the pandemic and to take a series of preventive measures to contain it and minimize its impact on the most vulnerable populations.

In total, the municipality of La Marsa has identified around fifty cases of COVID-19 - all by vertical contamination - and only one death. In this regard, La Marsa is considered a successful example of prevention and management of COVID 19, at the local level.

Considered as an upscale community, royal through its past and its monuments, a favorite place of ambassadors' residences, and commonly called "principality of La Marsa", the Municipality of la Marsa, hides a large underprivileged population, in addition to a large population of sub-Saharan immigrants. Between 3,500 and 4,000 residents are members of vulnerable populations and low-income groups. The districts of Bouselsla, Bhar Lazreg, Jbel Khaoui, Ettabak, Hay Ennasr are inhabited by daily workers, masons, market transporters, second-hand clothes sellers, plumbers, hairdressers, cleaners and waiters. At the beginning of the pandemic, these large groups of men and women often stopped working and remained confined to their homes because of the outbreak. Their little resources have been exhausted over the weeks and the assistance by the Ministry of Social Affairs took a while to arrive. As a result, vulnerable families were threatened by famine or eviction from their home, for non-payment of rent. This inspired the mayor's call for social mobilization and the establishment of a general social and health emergency plan.

2. How has your municipality been handling the dilemma of mitigating the economic impact vs. protecting public health    

Deeply concerned about the public health, economic and social consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic on the population and especially on the most vulnerable, the mayor of La Marsa, launched at the end of March an appeal to his constituents. This invited everyone to donate to the municipality, in return for a certificate. These donations went to the municipality’s most vulnerable populations. The call was followed by a great surge of solidarity and fundraising. In addition, an appeal for an amnesty and deferral of rent payments to landlords was also launched by the Mayor.

corona covid-19Several preventive health measures, subject to municipal decrees, were immediately taken to contain the pandemic, including: street decontamination, sterilization and cleaning of public places, strengthening of hygiene services, closing of public places, cafes, organization of queues and signalling in front of shops, obligation to wear a mask and call for compliance with confinement and distance.

At the same time, a Crisis and Coordination Unit for interventions was set up. Composed of elected officials, municipal staff and representatives of civil society, this unit has set itself the objectives of:

  • Identifying the needs in terms of health and hygiene, food aid and emergency housing, payment of rent, for the most vulnerable households.
  • Creating a database of vulnerable families and the immigrant community in La Marsa, and in each of the 5 districts.
  • Centralizing and coordinate the distribution of aid. This, in itself, included:
    -  Distribution of food and vouchers in agreement with supermarkets and local shops.
    -  Distribution of milk for infants and diapers for seniors and babies,
    -  Distribution of facemasks, hydro-alcoholic gel and cleaning / disinfectant products
    -  Distribution of medicines and signing agreements with pharmacies for this purpose.

As a result, a total of 7,808 vulnerable families and 2,000 immigrants have benefited from this aid.

The storage and sending out of food products was organized in cooperation with activists and the civil society organizations.

corona covid-19Dozens of volunteers, in collaboration with elected officials, were responsible for organizing, managing and participating in the delivery of emergency packages from local residents, businesses and supermarkets to families in need. To this end, an IT structure has been created to manage stocks and ensure the traceability of this solidarity operation. The donation dispatching was generally carried out after curfew to avoid riots and gatherings. Delivery notes with the names and contact details of the beneficiaries were issued by the municipality in accordance with the database of vulnerable families in the municipality. Environmental police cars, accompanied by volunteers and an elected official secured by the police, then left for the various destinations. A signature was requested from the recipients of the packages, to avoid duplication and ensure transparency. This delivered the following results:

  • 60,000 disposable facemasks and bottles of hydro alcoholic gel were also distributed, in particular to traders authorized to operate during confinement. 50,000 washable facemasks were distributed to families in need.
  • Around thirty Tunisian families and a hundred immigrant workers threatened with eviction, benefited from full or partial assistance to cover their rents.
  • The local tennis stadium was used for 3 days for the purpose of distributing purchase vouchers to migrants, with the help of volunteers and African associations, in particular Ivorian associations.
  • Regarding the payment of rents for people threatened with eviction, the municipality used two approaches:
  • The role of mediator: which consisted of initiating negotiations with landlords regarding rent deferral to prevent them from evicting households.
  • The second approach consisted of identifying emergency cases in which rent deferral was not an option and proceeding in covering the full or partial payment of the rent. This is because for a number of landlords, rent constitutes their only source of income, while they themselves were unemployed or out of work.

3. Does your municipality take a potential second COVID-19 outbreak into account? If so, how has your municipality been preparing for this?

According to many observers, Tunisia has managed the COVID-19 crisis well, by imposing strict and early containment to fight the coronavirus pandemic. A policy that has paid off, since only 45 deaths have been officially registered, for 1,032 people infected.

Today, the risks of a second wave of COVID-19, seems rather improbable to us, however, the municipality of La Marsa remains vigilant and we are now confident and ready to face a possible second outbreak, from the first signs.

4. Do you also see opportunities coming from the ongoing crisis?

The COVID-19 crisis has, indeed, not only had negative impacts. It has enabled Tunisia and the Municipality of La Marsa to put many urgent issues back on the table, including the reform of the health system, economic and social inequalities, discrimination based on gender and violence against women.

At the local level, this health crisis has enabled us:

  • To promote better governance in the municipality of La Marsa, based on rights and integration, and to make Marsa an inclusive city where vulnerable populations and immigrants find their place and their dignity.
  • The construction of a comprehensive and reliable database of vulnerable families in the Municipality of La Marsa, estimated at 7,850 families. Previous official figures (from the Ministry of Social Affairs) listed only 300 vulnerable families. Data is broken down by district and in order of priority.
  • To take stock of the extent of migration and its challenges and to come to a better understanding of the size and economic importance of the immigrant community, of its problems and difficulties and, consequently, of the challenges to be met and measures to be taken (constitution of a database of 2000 migrants, which includes their name, age, gender, number of children etc.)
  • To put the Participatory Governance approach into practice, in accordance with the Tunisian Constitution of 2014 and the Code of Local Authorities (CCL), by mobilizing and involving a large segment of civil society and citizens of La Marsa. 
  • Strengthening of the partnership with civil society, the relevant state bodies as well as international organizations such as Médecins du Monde, IOM, Tunisia Terre d'Asile, and UNHCR.
  • The creation of several citizen projects and initiatives in favour of marginalized populations and migrants, which will extend beyond the health crisis, including a migrant mapping project and a seminar for sharing good practices in local COVID-19 management.
  • The establishment of a one-stop shop for information and orientation for migrants.
  • Training of mediators: training sessions for elected officials and municipal staff and NGOs on the rights of migrants
  • A call for the establishment of a national strategy for the regulation of migrants, which is lacking today.

Participation in an advocacy campaign for the regulation of migrants:

The COVID-19 pandemic has also helped to build a new dynamic for the regulation of undocumented migrants and equal rights.

Many migrants live and work in the uncertainty and precariousness. The confinement to which they were subjected, like the rest of the populations, took place in conditions carrying risks for all. More than ever, the right to regulate undocumented migrants appears to be a necessity based on the universal values of human rights, to which Tunisia subscribes. It is also part of the compelling need to include the entire population in efforts to combat the pandemic.

A coalition of associations, civil society organizations, including the UGTT, the trade union center, and elected officials from La Marsa, was thus formed and launched an advocacy campaign and a series of meetings with the Ministries concerned, including:

  • The Minister of Human Rights, Relations with Constitutional Authorities and Civil Society, to whom the call for the regularization of migrants was handed over (who collected on 19/04/2020 the signatures of 61 associations and organizations, 23 deputies and hundreds of public personalities)
  • The Minister of Employment
  • The Minister for Women and the Family

These meetings made it possible to particularly address the issue of undocumented migrants and the risks to this vulnerable and marginalized population. The important risk of spread of virus spread in this among this populations was underlined, as this population is isolated in society and unlikely to alert the health authorities in case of infection, for fear of being expelled.

The delegation expressed the urgency of the situation, which cannot wait for the end of the containment, and the need for the government to respond to it. The massive and exceptional regulation of migrants is an imperative and a matter of general interest, otherwise it would be just a time bomb in terms of public health and social issues. Solutions are possible and can combine responses at the level of central and local authorities based on the network of associations. These solutions cannot be implemented without a real awareness of the authorities and the courage and political will of the government to assume this unprecedented responsibility.

These foreign workers, some of whom do not have a residence permit, live an injustice that is not worthy of a democratic country. Emergency solutions can therefore be found in the post-crisis context. Foreign workers are essential today and serve the economy and growth of this country. Without their daily presence in activities essential for everyday life - such as cleaning, collecting and sorting waste, personal assistance, agriculture, health, home services, trades trade and handling – would cease. 

The question of the overcrowded permanent camps and detention camps, including Ouardia, without hygienic measures, constitute a danger to the life of the people who live there, and also a risk for the whole population, because they cannot implement containment.

In La Marsa, 35 asylum seekers have been living in a youth centre and have been waiting for refugee status for more than 8 years. These residents are refusals from the UNHCR High Commission for Refugees. They were forced to leave Libya in 2011.

Although a signatory to the Geneva Convention, Tunisia has so far not had a legal framework necessary for its implementation. The current crisis has been a driving factor in establishing this.

5. Many municipalities are working on recovery plans. In the Netherlands these often include plans on how to support vulnerable populations in the recovery phase. Is this an issue of interest to your municipality? If so, can you share a concrete example of an activity that you have undertaken/foresee?

Drawing on its experience, the municipality of La Marsa wishes to maintain the momentum of solidarity and the participatory approach that prevailed during the health crisis, to strengthen its governance and its social action plan and make La Marsa a more united and inclusive city.