Diplomacy in the times of COVID-19 pandemic

Her Excellency Raja Jhinaoui Ben Ali

Ambassador of the Republic of Tunisia to Romania

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed every aspect of life and it has emerged as an extraordinary global threat for the humanity. Even the most developed countries of the world have been affected in result of the pandemic, especially in the field of challenges related to the health system and in all areas of life. Pandemic restrictions imposed in almost every country in the world have affected not only the individuals but also the social life and the economic activities. Industries have been disrupted. Businesses, schools and Governments implemented radical new policies in order to resume operations and adapt for the future.

Tunisia was among the countries that believe that the fight against this global threat can only be won through international cooperation and solidarity.

At the national level, our institutions and society saw into the severity of the situation at an early stage and, thanks to the measures undertaken, the entry of the pandemic into our country was delayed as much as possible.

Tunisia was one of the first countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to successfully oppose to the Corona virus outbreak. The country recorded zero new cases for five consecutive days starting May 11, completed its deconfinement plan between May 4 and June 14, opened its borders for tourism starting June 27, 2020  and resumed normal economic activity.

Tunisia’s achievement in dealing with the pandemic can be attributed to a combination of factors, including a relatively strong healthcare system, a fast and efficient Government response, citizen trust in Government performance and public awareness of the dangers of the virus. As soon as the first cases appeared in Tunisia, on March 2, the Government responded rapidly with a comprehensive set of measures aiming to slow the virus’ progression.

The Government suspended all travel, mandated working from home for non-essential workers, closed mosques, imposed mandatory confinement and nightly curfews, shut down schools and businesses and banned public gatherings. Military and police forces were in charged with ensuring that these instructions were followed.

Tunisia has the advantage of possessing one of the most advanced and better-resourced healthcare systems in the MENA region, such as the National Observatory of New and Emerging Diseases, the Response and Relief Organization and the Regional National Committee for Disaster Prevention, institutions that were ready to face the pandemic and to centralize responses to the pandemic, follow its epidemiological development and control its spread. At the local level, municipal councils, with the help of the civil society organizations and political parties, carefully coordinated with national institutions in order to implement additional and more targeted measures.

Thus, Tunisian authorities initiated public health measures in March 2020 aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. These measures included the closure of airports, point of entry (PoE) along land borders and maritime boundaries, as well as domestic movement restrictions and a lockdown. However, since March 15, 2020, Tunisian authorities have managed to ensure the repatriation of 25,000+ Tunisians stranded abroad, including 18,000 by air and 7,000 via land borders.

On June 4, 2020, Tunisia lifted the lockdown and on June 27, it reopened its sea, land, and air borders for foreigners, but has implemented a new entry procedure for international arrivals into the country. A color-coded system has been implemented to show which countries may enter without restrictions and which countries can enter with enhanced restrictions.

In the same period of 2020, Tunisia also announced the launch of its "Ready & Safe" label, accompanying a “Health Protocol for Tunisian anti-Covid-19 Tourism”. Its main objective was to take all necessary precautions and hygiene measures in order to ensure the safety of the travelers. The approach adopted for the development of these instructions and hygiene rules was based on a risk assessment using the 5 M method (Man, Machine, Medium, Mission, Management) over the entire tourism chain of the customer’s itinerary. The measures undertaken referred to:

  • Controlling the spread of this pandemic in tourist establishments.
  • Ensuring the safety of both staff members of the tourist establishments and guests.
  • Restoring the trust and confidence of sales networks and Tour Operators as soon as possible.
  • The offer of a healthy and safety-controlled product.

On the 13th of March, 2021, Tunisia launched its Covid-19 vaccination campaign. The priority was given to the medical professionals, followed by soldiers and security officers, as well as people over 65 and those with chronic health problems. On April 01, 2021, Tunisia received a second batch of COVID-19 vaccines, as part of the global “COVAX” initiative that aimed to ensure the equitable distribution of Coronavirus vaccines. Further batches will follow in order to achieve vaccination coverage of 50% of the population, by the end of 2021.

Also, in order to stimulate the touristic flux, the Tunisian National Authority for the Control of the Coronavirus has introduced new entry requirements, for organized travels, to Tunisia.

As of April 19, 2021, non-resident travelers presenting a voucher (flight + transfer + tourist accommodation) arriving on charter or regular flights as part of an organized and supervised trip (inclusive tour), shall be authorized to enter Tunisia by:

-  Presenting, on arrival, of the result of a negative PCR test carried out up to 72 hours before boarding and commit to stay in groups (cohorting) from the moment of arrival to Tunisia, and to use the touristic transportation in order to accommodate and to visit. All visits, whether they are inside or outside of the touristic accommodation establishments, should be in groups in strict compliance with the Tunisian Tourism Health Protocol against Covid-19.

As for us, the Diplomats, we joined the front lines of the crisis, with Embassies trying to strengthen important bilateral cooperation and provide consular services in a complex environment to stranded nationals. The virus has fundamentally changed diplomacy all over the world. World leaders and Ministers were forced to conduct diplomacy over video conferences and phone calls, while Ambassadors carried the load of representation and advocacy.

Diplomacy does not escape the turning point but the diplomatic practice has evolved enormously.

  1. The digital transformation was very important during this period which involved the transformation of classical diplomacy based on direct contact towards modern diplomacy. The work of diplomats was completely transformed: direct discussions between Heads of States; Heads of diplomacy; members of Governments, experts, have also changed the game and reduced to a strict minimum the epistolary exchanges between them. The diplomatic action, through digital media, changed the ecosystem and contributed to the cultural and organizational transformation of the world. Nevertheless, the importance of minimizing international travel costs was another positive effect.
  2. Scientific diplomacy played also a fundamental role during this pandemic in strengthening relations between national scientific actors and the international community.
  3. Now diplomacy is oriented towards an Inclusive Diplomacy In the framework of the Covid-19 outbreak, humanity requires unprecedented global solidarity and an emergency response. But it must also inspire us to lay the foundation for a more supportive and resilient world in the face of challenges.  Even if a country manages to stop the epidemic in the medium term, things are not in order or normal only from the moment when the vast majority of countries in the world have overcome this crisis.
  4. Sustainable diplomacy. With the pandemic, it has become clear that agriculture is a priority tool for providing the natural resources needed for subsistence; each country must acquire an increasingly autonomous economy.

It is therefore important that our Diplomatic missions maintain space to promote and prioritize investments related to these sectors; as well as the promotion of new trends that seek to increase and facilitate these activities in our country. From the above impacts of COVID-19 has had on diplomacy is lead us to be active diplomats. Traditional diplomacy is bound to be more dynamic, to reinvent itself, to seek advantages in the face of adversity and complex situations.

Following the lockdown, the Tunisian Embassy in Bucharest moved swiftly toward virtual operations.

We have also joined the digital diplomacy to expand the reach of their public and cultural events to global audiences and include a wider range of top officials and, in the same time, other participants from Tunisia. The Embassy intensified its social media engagement to address to the Tunisian community residing to Romania as well as reaching new audiences.

Though the next generation of diplomats will operate in a complex, uncertain world, I must stress that some important diplomatic skills, like critical thinking, clear writing and the ability to establish relationships, will remain crucial. “The supremacy and the need of tele-meetings have pushed us to improve our verbal and written communication skills in order to become more substantive since we can no longer rely greatly on nonverbal communications and close contact.”

This streamlining of diplomatic function also enabled us, as Embassy, to focus on the core functions of diplomacy.

The welfare, security and above else safe return of all Tunisian citizens living and staying outside Tunisia were the main priority of the Tunisian Government.

During the early months of 2020, Consular services overtook most other issues of the Embassy. The consular section played a key role in assisting citizens to deal in an uncertain and complicated world full of restrictions and border closures. Our priority task was to assist our citizens in difficult humanitarian, social and economic conditions imposed by the pandemic. Thus, the Embassy, through its Consular section, has served as the focal point for coordination between the citizen and the Tunisian authorities, in the process of repatriation to Tunisia.  Our citizens - primarily and most urgently of those who were in foreign countries temporarily as tourists, workers or visitors and stranded there due to the closure of the borders, were the main focus of our efforts. Our Representations all over the world have also provided supplies and cash assistance to those in need.

I have to point out all the efforts made by the Embassy that worked closely with the Romanian authorities in order to ensure the repatriation of the Tunisians blocked here. Thanks to the concerted efforts of the two parties they were able to reach Tunisia in the best conditions. We had two important repatriation flights, on the 08th of May, 2020 and on the 21st of June, 2020.

Since then, I have tried to keep my work as well as of the Embassy active, although we still have to face the consequences of this sanitary crisis.

The decentralized cooperation also increased significantly. The Embassy has intensified its visits and contacts with local authorities in different Romanian cities, such as Galati, Iasi, Timisoara, Arad, Cluj-Napoca, Valcea, Dambovicioara, Sibiu, and recently Voineasa and Sviniţa (Mehedinţi) both in order to study the possibilities of twinning between Romanian and Tunisian cities and as well as to reactivate the old partnership projects. These working visits from different cities of Romania demonstrated the excellence of the existing relations between the two countries and the common desire to strengthen them and raise them to a higher level. The discussions were also an opportunity to review the different aspects of bilateral cultural cooperation, trade and investment opportunities in Tunisia and to note with satisfaction the consistency of positions on regional and international issues of common interest.

In this respect, twinning projects were agreed in 2020 (Iasi and Ariana city; between Timisoara and Tunis, as well as a project between Valcea and Hammam Sousse) or are going to be (Voineasa, county of Olt and Voineasa, county of Valcea) thus materializing my visits and meetings with local authorities. The Embassy also reactivated older twinning projects between the two countries, such as Hammamet - Cluj; Busteni - Djerba Midoun and Bran - Sidi Bousaid.

I also have to mention the last webinar held on February, the 04th, 2021, by the Embassy in partnership with InvestRomania within the Ministry of Economy, Business Environment and Tourism of Romania and in cooperation with the Agency for the Promotion of Foreign Investment (FIPA-Tunisia), the Bucharest Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Prahova Chamber of Commerce and Industry and its Tunisian partners, Tunisia Export – CEPEX and Tunisia Investment Authority (TIA) on bilateral economic relations that aimed to capture the Romanian investment climate on the positive impact of the acceleration of favorable developments in the Tunisian economy, including its ongoing commitment to improve the business climate in order to become more attractive to quality investment and provide new opportunities, exemptions and guarantees.

In this regard, I confirmed that the two countries can work together in order to achieve the desired economic development objective, especially since “Tunisia is a regional centre from which the two partners have the opportunity to promote triangular cooperation with their strategic partners – Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East.”

On my working meetings with the Romanian officials, we have also agreed on the need to pursue and intensify economic and trade dialogue, as soon as the sanitary situation allows it, in order to revive the objectives of the Cooperation Agreement signed between the RCCI (Romanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) and the Tunisian Union of Industry, Trade and Crafts - UTICA, on the sidelines of the Romanian -Tunisian Business Forum, organized on the 11th of April 2019 and especially the creation of a Business Council, stipulated in the 2019 Cooperation Agreement. The talks also aimed to establish a schedule of joint actions that will take place online, in the first phase, given the global pandemic context, followed by working visits between Tunisian economic operators and their Romanian counterparts.

I would like to emphasize that even in these critical situations, the good cooperation between the Embassy and the Romanian authorities was maintained in order to prepare the next steps after the end of this global sanitary situation.

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