Virus-hit Tunisia brings Covid care home
'CoviDar' – an initiative named after Covid and the Arabic word for 'home' – was launched in December 2020 by charities, and staffed by doctors and other health professionals.
Among them is 60-year-old general practitioner Hichem Ouadi, who now spends his working week visiting and caring for coronavirus sufferers in their own homes.
"When you're at home you sleep better, and your loved ones are there too. Patient morale is higher," Dr Ouadi told AFP in Tunis, as he visited a couple for a consultation that will cost them nothing.
"It's a boost to our colleagues in hospitals who are overwhelmed," the GP said. "We have to get our hands dirty – everyone must help."
Many patients in the North African country may be slow to seek treatment because they lack the means, while others head for hospital emergency rooms because they have no one else to look after them.
This is where CoviDar comes in: it can supply early care that can prevent the need for hospital treatment, and provide daily monitoring so patients can be looked after at home as much as possible.
According to Dr Yves Souteyrand, the representative for Tunisia at the World Health Organization (WHO), Covid-19 has been devastating for the country.
"Tunisia has the highest death rate on the entire African continent and the whole Arab world," he told AFP.
With "more than 100 deaths a day" in a country of 12 million people, "that's really a lot".
CoviDar has 140 medics paid for by donations.
Medical students man the phones seven days a week, taking calls on a toll-free number, and putting people who need help in contact with health professionals.
One is 26-year-old student Sarah Souissi, who joined CoviDar in January. On average, she receives 25 calls during her four-hour daily shift.
"Most callers are relatives of patients with Covid-19 worried about medical care," she said.
Souad Dziri, a coordinator with CoviDar, said the organisation also provides post-hospitalisation follow-up to allow "the early and safe return of patients to their homes".
She said the group has treated 2,100 patients, 98 percent of whom "fully recovered without hospitalisation".
The idea for CoviDar came during Tunisia's first virus wave in September 2020.
"We saw all the hospitals and clinics being overwhelmed," Dziri said.
The group expanded as rapidly as it could to try to keep pace with infections, but Dziri said CoviDar was now under extreme pressure.
She is happy to help out during a difficult time, but admits to being "a bit stressed", given that "the state has no means".
The health ministry's latest figures on Covid-19 show nearly 500,000 confirmed cases and 16,388 deaths, with more than 100 deaths being registered every day.
"We're really overwhelmed – all our volunteers are being inundated," Dziri told AFP.
But it needs another 200,000 dinars ($72,000, 60,000 euros) to keep going in July and August, and to cover as much of the country as possible.
"CoviDar is doing its best, but the state must also do everything it can for mass vaccinations and to slow down this wave," she said.
Tunisia has major political problems that disrupt decision-making and undermine confidence in the authorities.
Health care in the public hospital system has been weakened by years of mismanagement and lack of resources.
On Monday, Tunisian tennis player Ons Jabeur – who became the first Arab woman to reach the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last week – said she was auctioning a racquet to raise money to help medics treating Covid-19, saying she couldn't sit by and "watch my country go through difficult situations".
The WHO's Dr Souteyrand said that just 11 percent of the population has had one vaccine dose and five percent two doses, "far from what it would take to have a collective immunity effect".
Neila, 28, is just happy to see Dr Ouadi turn up in the mud-brick alleyway leading to her home in the capital.
"I'm happy my husband can be cared for at home, with me there," she said. "I have cared for him the best as I could."