KAIROUAN, Tunisia (AP) — As Tunisia faces a surge of COVID-19 cases, demand for life-saving oxygen has grown higher than the supply, leaving patients desperate and family members angry at the government as they say they are forced to find oxygen on their own.
As the misery grows, traders have seized on an opportunity for profit, buying supplies of oxygen and other treatments and then renting them or selling them at higher prices. The profitable enterprise that is growing online has prompted citizens to call on authorities for intervention.
“I was subjected to various types of blackmailing. People were trading and brokering with everything. Believe me, with everything," said Abdou Mzoughi, 43, whose nearly 80-year-old mother died June 26 from COVID-19 after he spent six days trying, but failing, to get the lifesaving oxygen treatment she needed.
“We were looking for a bed with oxygen in any hospital,” he said. He couldn't even find her a place in a field hospital, or obtain a larger oxygen concentrator for at-home treatment.
The pandemic comes as the nation in North Africa — the only success story of the Arab Spring of a decade ago — finds itself beset by overlapping political and economic crises. Last month President Kais Saied fired the prime minister, froze the parliament and took on executive powers in what he says is a bid to save the country. He began ruling by decree after nationwide protests over the nation’s deteriorating social and economic situation — topped by the raging coronavirus epidemic.
Tunisia, with a population of 12 million, has reported more deaths per capita in the pandemic than any African country and has had among the highest daily death rates per capita in the world in recent weeks. More than 20,000 Tunisians have died so far, and the vaccination rate remains low.
Mzoughi said the market price of oxygen has more than doubled as demand grows in Kairouan, an ancient desert city that is considered among the holiest in Islam and is recognized by