In Charles Nicolle Hospital in the Tunisian capital, the emergency department is filled with patients who are sharing oxygen in rooms and even hallways.
After successfully containing the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Tunisia is struggling to cope with a resurgence of the virus, with intensive care wards full and doctors overburdened by a rapid rise in cases and deaths.
“Doctors are exhausted, as the number of patients exceeded the capacity of the hospital,” Ahmed Ghoul, a nurse at Charles Nicolle, told Reuters. “Even the mortuary was full and we could no longer find a place for them.”
Tunisia recorded 157 coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, the highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic. In all, it has reported around 17,000 deaths and 500,000 coronavirus infections.
“We are suffering, we urgently need oxygen, it (demand) has exceeded the stocks that we have,” said Dr Rym Hamed, head of the emergency department at Charles Nicolle.
Official fears that the already weak healthcare system would collapse under the strain prompted President Kais Saied to appeal for help from the international community.
That distress call is now being answered.
Arab countries promised help earlier this month. A Qatari field hospital has already arrived and this week planes from Egypt, Algeria, the UAE and Turkey touched down loaded with urgent medical aid and vaccines.
Saudi Arabia pledged to send 1 million doses of vaccine and important medical aid and Morocco to send 100 intensive care beds. France said it would send medical aid and about a million doses of vaccine to its former colony, while the United States also pledged 500,000 doses of vaccine.
The latest aid brings to more than 3.3 million the number of vaccine doses donated to Tunisia, where vaccinations lag far behind many countries. So far, only 750,000 people have been fully vaccinated out of a total of 11.6 million residents.
For many, the help cannot come soon enough.
“My mother is in a critical condition,” said a woman named Laila outside another Tunis hospital. “Oxygen is not available... people die every day for this reason.”