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Coronavirus: Needy Tunisians receive food aid via text messages

NGO initiative targets families who have lost jobs because of lockdown imposed by Tunisia to contain spread of virus
Government estimates that two million of Tunisia's 11.5 million population are in need of financial assistance (AFP)

A Tunisian NGO has set up a food bank that dispenses aid by text message to about 300 needy families rendered more vulnerable amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The initiative was launched at the end of April to coincide with the start of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, AFP reported.

It targets families who have lost jobs because of the lockdown imposed by Tunisia to contain the spread of the virus, like that of Messaouda Raouafi, a cleaning woman forced to stay indoors.

"Because of Ramadan and the lockdown, I can no longer go out to work," said the 49-year-old. "I cannot clean homes and earn money to feed my seven children."

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Her family was among the 300 chosen by the Women's Affairs Ministry and signalled to the NGO known as the Banque Alimentaire Durable or Sustainable Food Bank.

Under the initiative, Raouafi receives a code by text message allowing her to spend 40 to 60 Tunisian dinars ($21-32) weekly at specially designated grocery stores.

With that money, Raouafi has been able to buy basic goods including oil, milk, coffee and flour.

Farah, who runs a grocery store in the working-class district of Kram, is among those who signed up to take part in the project.

"The money is sent to us ahead of time - that way the clients can buy what they want with the funds allocated to them," she said.

Farah said this works much better than allowing customers to buy on credit, a system that takes its toll on her own finances.

"In our area, there are many poor families and unemployed people," she said, explaining why she decided to embrace the initiative.

A member of the NGO, Aisha Zakraoui, said she hopes the initiative will grow and reach more needy families across Tunisia.

Even before the virus outbreak, Tunisia had been struggling with economic and social hardship that has worsened since the country went into lockdown in March to battle the pandemic.

The coronavirus has devastated Tunisia's tourism industry, with the vital sector expected to see 400,000 people lose their jobs this year and $1.4bn in lost revenue.

The country's economy is set to shrink by up to 4.3 percent, the steepest drop since independence in 1956, Reuters reported.

The government estimated that two million of Tunisia's 11.5 million population were in need of financial assistance.

Last month, Tunisia received $745m from the IMF.

Tunisia, which has officially declared 1,030 cases of the novel coronavirus including 45 deaths, according to Worldometer, began easing its lockdown on 4 May.