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Covid-19: Tunisia fires health minister as hospitals struggle to cope with rising cases

Prime minister sacked Faouzi Mehdi days after the health ministry said the pandemic situation was overwhelming
Tunisian hospitals are reporting shortages in oxygen and ICU beds as cases continue to rise across the country (AFP)

Tunisia's Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi fired his health minister on Tuesday as the country struggles to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mechichi's office confirmed the firing of Faouzi Mehdi without giving a reason just days after the health ministry described the coronavirus situation in Tunisia as overwhelming. 

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The Tunisian health ministry has recorded 17,000 deaths in a population of 12 million, with hospitals reporting oxygen shortages and lack of staff. 

Mechichi's office, which has been rocked by resignations and tensions with Tunisian President Kais Saied, said that Social Affairs Minister Mohamed Trabelsi would take over in a caretaker capacity. 

Before his firing, Mehdi made vaccines available for all Tunisians over 18 for Tuesday and Wednesday to mark the Eid al-Adha feast.

But that led to stampedes at some of the 29 vaccination centres and vaccines quickly ran out. 

Fewer than a million people have been fully vaccinated, with the caseload becoming one of the highest in Africa. 

The health ministry said it would continue its vaccine campaign but backtracked and restricted jabs to those aged 40 and over on Wednesday to avoid further stampedes. 

'Race against time' 

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

In some hospitals, the bodies of Covid-19 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.

The government of war-torn neighbouring Libya in early July closed their shared border and suspended air links with Tunisia over the rocketing caseload.

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