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herbalists take advantage of the coronavirus crisis

The country is also learning to live at the rate of the pandemic. And to fight it. Some people try it with medicinal plants …

If there have only been 18 officially registered coronavirus cases since March 2, 2020, and no deaths to date, Tunisian authorities have taken strong action against the Covid-19 pandemic. Measures especially for trade. A sector escapes this gloomy atmosphere, however : that of herbalists and medicinal plants.

All international flights have been suspended, announced Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh. “A restricted ministerial council met and decided to close the air and land borders (…) except goods and repatriation trips “, he said. Several thousand foreign tourists found themselves stranded, especially on the island of Djerba (south). According to the French Embassy, “30 special flights are planned” to bring back the French.

From March 18, gatherings will also be prohibited in hammams, parties and in markets. While the work will have to be organized in two services of five hours each to limit the frequency of transport. Hours of service are notably reduced in the Public Service.

All sporting events and competitions are canceled. The collective prayers had already been. The schools, which had been closed this week a few days before the start of the Tunisian holidays, will not reopen until March 28.

Result: in Tunis, the capital, the barges fewer are in a hurry in the paved alleys of the medina, observes AFP. But Tunisians continue to come to souk el-Blat, the herbalists' district in the heart of the old city. Local and imported medicinal plants are usually prized for protection against winter flu in particular.

A customer buying garlic cloves on a market in Tunis, March 12, 2020. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

In recent weeks, there has already been a garlic rush, with so-called antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. In this context, prices have soared, sometimes reaching 25 dinars (8 euros) … “People eat more garlic now to avoid corona”, thus explained at RFI a grandmother who cooks her two children and three grandchildren every day. “Social networks and popular belief attribute (in pods) exaggerated therapeutic properties “, reports RFI.

To the extent that WHO had to explain on his site that he had to “put an end to misconceptions”. Specifying : “Garlic is a healthy food that may have certain antimicrobial properties. However, in the current epidemic, there is no evidence that consuming garlic protects people from the new coronavirus …”

Either way, most customers are looking for plants and mixtures “effective” but also “not expensive”. “I can understand that people are returning to tradition”, says pharmacologist Hédi Oueslati, Director General of Health in Tunisia. However, he recalls : “Currently, there are no miraculous drugs or plants for the new coronavirus.”

“When it comes to little dangerous grandma recipes that don't cause any problems, okay ! “, says the manager. But “you have to be careful and not fall into quackery.” Some take advantage of generalized anxiety “to sell so-called mixtures whose composition we don't even know”, he warns.

“What do I take for this corona ? “, launched a client to a merchant in the souk el-Blat. “The goal is to protect us, no more no less, especially since there are no drugs against this virus”, she assures AFP.

Fields in the winter mist in Bou Salem (north-western Tunisia) on December 20, 2018
Fields in the winter mist in Bou Salem (northwest of Tunisia) on December 20, 2018 (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

For the herbalist Fethi Ben Moussa, 61, “Tunisians love everything that is traditional and natural : they trust, especially in these moments of panic, the recipes of our ancestors ! “ And to continue : “People ask for things to prepare at home like thyme, ginger, moringa which are very good for immunity and for fighting viruses”, he says.

The herbalist also advises his customers to perfume their homes with the seeds of peganum Harmala, a perennial plant that would have disinfecting properties, to believe it, even against the new coronavirus. Although at the scientific level, this is in no way proven … In his shop, Haj Mohamed, he says to offer mixtures “100% effective against viruses”, made from ginger, jujube honey and turmeric. For this herbalist from father to son, these are “magic ingredients fighting any kind of flu”, he promises, proud of his production.

But “all that is natural is not harmless ! “warns Doctor Chokri Hamouda, director general of health care in Tunisia. He underlines “a problem of respect for the principle of hygiene in the traditional souks, and in the country in general”. “We don't pretend to replace doctors or cure people, but we are good connoisseurs of plant secrets”, retorts for his part Fethi Ben Moussa. “We help our customers learn the proper use of the wonders of nature “, he adds, lyric.

It's here “evil for good”, comments the site Tunisia-Tribune.

If no vaccine or medication seems to want to get rid of this virus, it's only natural that we go back to grandmother's good and old recipes. Hence this return and this craze for herbalists.The Tunisia-Tribune site

And what represents this traditional activity in Tunisia ? In 2013 (difficult to find more recent data), according to a study cited by the site Babnet, the aromatic and medicinal plants sector (MAP) contributed “on average, up to 0.8% to the formation of the value of agricultural production, 1% to the export effort”. Two years earlier, the total area of ​​MAP cultivated in Tunisia was estimated at 4 550 hectares, of which 1 396 hectares for medicinal plants alone. There are more than 2 000 species of plants, which makes the country “a true phytogenetic reservoir”, given its Mediterranean and Saharan nature. According to one other study, 225 species are used in traditional medicine, including 38 for essential oils.

Among the plants harvested : mint, coriander, cumin, fennel, chamomile, jasmine, marjoram … But also rosemary, orange blossom, myrtle and rose (the last three transformed into essential oils), appreciated for export, especially to Europe.

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