Fears that coronavirus could ‘overwhelm’ war-torn Libya

Many observers fear the worst after the first case of coronavirus was registered in Libya on March 24, with two rival governments fighting to take control of the country and a health system that has been on its knees for almost a decade in the chaos that followed the overthrow of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The first Libyan patient with coronavirus has been placed in isolation in a hospital in the capital Tripoli, according to the Minister of Health of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) of Fayez al-Sarraj. The patient is a 73-year-old man who entered Libya through Tunisia in early March after his stay in Saudi Arabia. His immediate entourage – made up of more than 20 people – turned out to be negative, local media reported.

Initially, it appears that many Libyans thought they were safe from the pandemic that has spread around the world, including to the country’s North African neighbors. “We are safe from the virus in Libya, the capital of which is under siege and where land and air links are closed,” Moayed al-Missaoui, an academic, told Agence France-Presse earlier. in March.

However, the UN now fears a catastrophic result, while the two armed camps – the GNA of Sarraj and the marshal Maréchal Khalifa Haftar – the Libyan National Army (LNA) – continue their military operations against each other. This has raised concerns about the risks to civilians who find themselves trapped in the midst of the clashes, as well as to migrants detained in detention centers, some of which are located near combat zones.

“We are deeply concerned about the reporting of the first # COVID19 case in Libya”, tweeted the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Libya. “The health and safety of all people in Libya, including 345,000 of the most vulnerable, are at risk. A possible outbreak will overwhelm the response of the aid already extended. “

The health system “is already on the verge of collapse”

It is not surprising that the United Nations body is concerned. The Libyan health system is in “constant decline” because “too many hospitals and clinics were damaged during the fighting,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Despite efforts by the United Nations and NGOs, a shortage of qualified staff, disruption of supply chains due to the conflict and lack of drugs and medical equipment make it difficult to deliver health care – and not only in isolated regions of the country.

“It is a health system that was on the verge of collapse before contracting the coronavirus,” Elizabeth Hoff, chief of mission for the World Health Organization, told Reuters earlier this week Libya. For its part, the 2019 global health security index ranks the country at 185th out of 195 for its ability to respond to the spread of an epidemic.

As a sign of their shared awareness of the potential gravity of the situation, both the GNA (whose electrical base is in Tripoli) and the LNA (based in eastern Libya) had anticipated the arrival of the coronavirus by taking measures preventive measures, by imposing night curfews and closing certain public places.

The GNA Health Ministry urged all medical personnel on March 26 to go and work on the front line in hospitals, where healthcare workers have already been mobilized to be ready for a possible coronavirus pandemic. The GNA also announced that several quarantine sites, including two in Tripoli, will be set up to isolate people infected with the disease.

“People are already struggling to access health care”

However, Ahmed al-Hassi, spokesman for the Haftar Coronavirus Medical Advisory Committee earlier today said that regardless of the number of beds and intensive care rooms that have been prepared, Libya would be “unable to cope” with an epidemic due to its “limited capacities”.

“People are already struggling to access health care for routine treatment, and hospitals are already struggling with large numbers of victims of the fighting in Tripoli,” Liam Kelly told Jeune Afrique, South Africa. , Libyan director of the Danish Refugee Council. – weekly focus. “Actions are being taken across the country, but the weakness of the health system is dramatic.”

Libyans certainly took precautions, as evidenced by the products sold in supermarkets and pharmacies. The stocks of sanitary products such as hand wipes, masks and gloves are out of stock, Mounir el-Hazel, who runs a medical import business, told Agence France-Presse.

But despite such preventive measures on the part of civilians, the fact remains that the military situation is not conducive to an effective fight against an epidemic of coronavirus. In response to the imminent threat from Covid-19, a truce was established and accepted by both parties on March 22, under the auspices of several countries and the United Nations. However, the GNA and the LNA subsequently accused the other of violating this agreement.

Tripoli was notably the target of bombardments during the night of March 24 to 25, while new clashes were said to have taken place at an air base close to the capital which was targeted during an offensive by the GNA forces.

On Wednesday, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) lamented the fact that “while the world is engaged in fighting the spread of COVID-19, which has overwhelmed countries with sufficient resources, attacks and counterattacks in Libya continue to cause new suffering and loss civilians ”.

In light of this, UNSMIL called for an “immediate de-escalation” so that the Libyans could “focus on fighting COVID-19”. But it will be difficult to hear this appeal, given the absence of a truce respected by both parties.

This article was adapted from the original in French.