Tunisians struggle with prices and shortages as economy worsens

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Tunisian street cleaner Lassad Mejri says life has grown so tough for his family because of the country’s dire economy that they prepare just one meal a day, but as government finances falter, there may be worse to come.

Like many Tunisians Mejri, 57, and his wife Elgeya had already been struggling to cope with basic living costs before recent years brought the COVID-19 pandemic, rising global inflation and a crisis in state finances.

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“People are no longer happy and cannot even laugh. Everything is difficult. If you laugh now, you feel bad,” said Mejri, who lives in the town of Tebourba, 30km (18 miles) west of the capital Tunis.

Mejri, his wife, and their son used to eat three meals a day. Now, Elgeya only prepares a midday meal and they only eat in the evening if there are leftovers.

Mejri spends his working days sweeping streets and pavements in Tebourba, pushing a wheeled plastic bin along with him, to earn 400 dinars ($100) a month.

“Everything has become very expensive this year, we can no longer buy anything,” he said.

Tunisia has been pushing for years for an international bailout to help it stave off bankruptcy, but the country’s political turmoil and disputes over economic reforms have thwarted those efforts.

Last week, ratings agency Moody’s downgraded Tunisian sovereign debt, saying there was a likelihood of a default.

Shortages of some subsidised food and medicine already point to the government’s economic problems, and a default would likely make things much worse by raising the cost of borrowing and undermining the dinar, which would worsen inflation.

Mejri needs medicine for a medical condition, but said he was no longer able to find it in Tunisia.

“It’s not a shortage. This medicine is not here anymore,” he said. He said he managed to obtain some from a woman who had imported it specially from France for her own mother.

Shortages have been seen across the country, with supermarkets and local shops out of some products or having to ration basic goods such as sugar, milk, butter and cooking oil.

Even without those shortages, a 10 percent inflation rate - which economists say may be 20 percent for food items - means many Tunisians are buying less anyway.

At a Tunis market, vegetable seller Tawfik Mselmi, 53, said he was ashamed to be demanding such high prices, but was making no profit.

“People look at the peppers and tomatoes and do not buy them. Or they buy two peppers and two tomatoes,” he said.

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