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Can Tunisia Shake Off “Business as Usual” Following Covid-19?

The piece was submitted and written in collaboration with Arab Reform Initiative.

Almost a decade after Tunisia’s revolution, rampant inequalities and corruption continue to plague the country as it struggles to implement needed socio-economic measures to respond to aspirations for more social justice. This has caused disenchantment with the new political elite and a rise of populism that risks endangering the democratic gains achieved so far.

The COVID-19 outbreak has further exposed the country’s systemic social inequalities, often manifested in different forms, including communities protesting persistent issues with access to water amid the sanitary crisis, doctors and patients denouncing the uneven and stretched resources in public hospitals, women agricultural workers whose priority throughout the crisis remained their struggle for economic subsistence.

As the pandemic takes its toll on an already fragile economy, further weakening strategic sectors and increasing public debt and expenditures, foreseen economic losses seem bound to exacerbate existing social tensions. The government and its social partners have repeatedly maintained that protecting the economy and setting the stage for a post-COVID-19 recovery are their major priorities.8 To that end, the government rolled out a series of socio-economic measures to assist companies and self-employed individuals to maintain jobs and incomes across all economic sectors.

Yet, amid the crisis, the role the private sector can and should play becomes crucial and must be discussed.  Who should save who? Should the Tunisian government bail out companies in light of the crisis? Should the private sector mobilize efforts amid COVID-19 and, if so, what kind of mobilization can it undertake?  In his latest interview, the head of the Tunisian government, Elyes Fakhfakh, reiterated his faith in the deeply rooted tradition of social dialogue between Tunisian unions and employers’ organization. 

This paper analyses the government and private sector responses to COVID-19 considering Tunisia’s economic and social challenges and existing state-business relations. It argues that, rather than going back to the “shady business as usual”, the Tunisian response to COVID-19 can be a golden opportunity to rectify state-business relations, institute a culture of corporate accountability that may partly address the root causes of inequalities in Tunisia, and promote the long-awaited agenda of social justice. To do so, the government should place the COVID-19 response within a broader effort to address the persistent and systemic challenges the country faces from corruption to rent-seeking to vulnerable workers’ conditions. This can be done by setting an agenda of state-business accountability and ensuring that recovery measures adopted in response to the pandemic fulfil fundamental responsibilities towards the most vulnerable and provide them with long-neglected essential services. If the measures taken by Tunisia’s government fail to address these systemic challenges and continue to ignore social justice, they risk perpetuating inequalities and maintaining the interests of a small business elite...