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Hichem Mechichi, Tunisia PM Health Minister Sacked Amid Worsening COVID-19 Cases

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Tunisia’s Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi sacked Health Minister Faouzi Mehdi on Tuesday, Mechichi’s office said, amid spiralling coronavirus cases in the North African country.

The ministry said earlier this month that Tunisia’s health system had “collapsed” under the weight of the pandemic, which has caused more than 17,000 deaths in a population of around 12 million.

Mechichi’s office announced Mehdi’s sacking in a brief statement, without giving a reason for the move.

It said Social Affairs Minister Mohamed Trabelsi would head the ministry in a caretaker capacity.

Mehdi had initiated a temporary opening of vaccination stations to all Tunisians over 18 for Tuesday and Wednesday, leading to stampedes.

The ministry finally restricted access to vaccination to those aged over 40 on Wednesday to avoid a new rush.

Mehdi’s sacking is another instance of instability in a government that has seen several ministers resign over tensions with parliament and the presidency.

On Sunday, Tunisia reported 117 new coronavirus deaths and 2,520 new cases, bringing total recorded cases to more than half a million.

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Health ministry spokeswoman Nissaf Ben Alya said on July 8 the health situation was “catastrophic”, telling a local radio station that “unfortunately, the health system has collapsed”.

Some bodies of Covid victims have been left lying in rooms next to other patients for up to 24 hours, because there were not enough staff to organise their transfer to overstretched mortuaries.

The health ministry’s Facebook page said special field hospitals set up in recent months are no longer enough.

Following Ben Alya’s announcement, the government of war-torn neighbouring Libya said it had decided to close their shared border and suspend air links with Tunisia for a week.

Countries from Gulf states to former colonial power France and even cash-strapped Mauritania have sent medical aid.

Since June 20, authorities have imposed a total lockdown on six regions and a partial lockdown in the capital.

Tunisians have lived through a decade of political instability and economic crisis since their 2011 revolution which overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, leaving vital public services crumbling.