I had just returned from a trip to a literal oasis in the Sahara when I got news that a friend was forced into isolation. It was early March, and she was in contact with a woman who tested positive for COVID-19. Her case was among the first in Tunis, Tunisia’s capital city. Panic officially set in.
The risks of living in a developing country now weighed heavy. Tunisia (a country with a population of 11 million people) is home to meagre 200 working hospital beds, broken and barely fit for use. The hospitals are run-down, unsanitary, and often, blood-on-the-floor gruesome. In theory, we were already fucked.
Soon, the government closed all mosques and imposed a shisha ban. We needed a total lockdown, though; the imminence of hospital overcrowding daunted me.
A strict lockdown was put in place a week later. Cafes where unemployed youth, retired men, and budding couples typically hung out were ordered to close. A 6 pm curfew was imposed and “essential” businesses were loosely defined, like everywhere else. The nation lived through similar measures a decade earlier when a revolution toppled the reign of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship during the Arab Spring. It turned out, living in a corruption-ridden, developing country had groomed us for a pandemic.
The nation now has just over 900 cases and 38 deaths. We’re stable, but still under lockdown.
But this is a nation with 15 per cent unemployment and poverty rates that only the privileged could ignore. Since my move to Tunis from the US, I found myself among them. I lived like them and partied with them. My childhood was spent in the small rural town of Siliana, though – imposter syndrome is practically a personality trait now.
The pandemic converged the two worlds I belonged to through the collective need to prevent the virus’ spread. However, the lockdown’s economic effects made their differences starkly evident. Wealth and poverty, modernity and tradition were meeting in a novel circumstance. I felt an urge to choose sides. But what was I going to do about the expensive smoking habit that my traditional mom disapproves of?
I packed my bags and drove to my hometown, a place where I grew up with my mother living pay-check to pay-check. The lockdown meant that its street-vendors, plumbers, handy-men, hairdressers, and barbers who made their money day-to-day were out of work. I watched their anger one morning as many huddled in front of the local post office, demanding government aid as police officers yelled through their car windows.
Life felt dystopian for weeks, but at this point I was living out my own episode of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Whatever decision I made next was crucial, and the appeal of a life amongst affluence in the sense of capital and social status transformed into repulsion. I moved out of my apartment in the fancy neighbourhood of Sidi Bou Said to Siliana. Permanently.
All of a sudden, it became feasible to be the kind of person who lives in the countryside raising chickens and growing vegetables in between watching Tory Lanez’s Instagram lives.