Combatting COVID-19 in Libya

According to the Annual Report on Global Preparedness for Health Emergencies, 2019, conflict-affected countries are disproportionately affected by coronavirus (COVID-19) due to the consequences of conflict on their health systems, infrastructure, institutions, economy, and public health, leaving them ill-prepared to manage pandemics such as the coronavirus. In Libya, for instance, cases of coronavirus are currently increasing among a petridish of political instability, fragmentation and harsh sectarianism.

Since April 16th, 2020, the majority of confirmed positive COVID-19 cases in Libya came from the nation’s cities of Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi and Surman. Three suspected cases from Zintan were previously submitted to the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) and tested negative. Recommended measures included isolation, social distancing, self-quarantine, and the closure of public institutions. For those already living in desperation, the threat of the coronavirus could may seem trivial when compared to the threat of more imminent death by conflict.

To control the spread of the virus, several strategies have consisted of applying a partial lockdown, closing airports, mosques, educational institutions and borders, avoiding mass gatherings, and limiting movements between cities. Furthermore, Libya’s tuberculosis vaccine coverage was considered as high as 98%, and preliminary evidence suggests that one of the tuberculosis vaccine’s unexpected benefit’s may include unexpected cross protection against the coronavirus.

Another theory that explains why Libya has been safe from experiencing large number of cases is the climate. Higher air temperatures can help mitigate the spread of coronavirus since cold weather tends to increase the risk of infections by making the respiratory system sensitive.

As such, the number of suspected patient cases admitted to intensive care units was not expected to rise, and social stigma across the country makes it hard for citizens to consult doctors even if in case of observed coronavirus symptoms. Social stigma also explains the reason behind the decreasing number of test intakes. It is considered embarrassing or shameful to admit to having coronavirus symptoms or to admit to being in contact with somebody symptomatic.

In addition to the social nuances of coronavirus, the Libyan conflict adds another important dimension. Armed actors in Libya display significant opportunism since the state is severely fractured. The resulting power vacuums provide opportunity for foreign interference in Libya’s management of coronavirus. For example, state authorities have been largely impacted by the pandemic and currently face political pressures from the United Nations, since they need to ensure that regional objectives are being met, which makes it difficult to take more drastic and carefully planned measures to combat the virus.

On the other hand, if counterinsurgency efforts are made, this might be harmed by the reallocation of resources and manpower, which are often military.

The domestic situation in Libya is bleak considering that the political authority has collapsed, its legitimacy contested on multiple fronts, and that the internationally-recognised “authority” of Sarraj is unable to control more than fifty percent of Libyan territories. The internationalisation of the armed conflict is instigating instability, protracting the conflict, and redirecting vital resources away from governance to the war front.

The combination of a highly internationalised armed conflict and dismantled public health system makes COVID-19 a major threat to civilians in Libya. The high level of external reaction in the conflict is particularly remarkable concerning the effects of COVID-19 on conflict dynamics in Libya.

With the spread of coronavirus, the humanitarian situation could deteriorate further. Another armed group has forced the closure of a gas pipeline which supplies power stations in western Libya, causing blackouts in the west and south of the country.

While facing negative consequences of the pandemic, the Libyan National Army (LNA) and Government of National Accord (GNA) continued fighting by using resources from their external allies. With time, COVID-19 might facilitate conflict de-escalation if the key external powers on one or both sides become weakened by the intensity of the pandemic to the extent that this impairs their capacity in investing in the conflict.

Furthermore, thirty-three percent of Libyans live at or below the poverty line. As such, strict home quarantine measures, which may leave breadwinners unable to work even for relatively short periods, could have severe consequences for the Libyan population.

Libya has to create a certain balance in terms of economic need as well as public health, as the reopening of society might threaten the progress made on containing the pandemic. In other words, containing the disease becomes challenging among an ageing population and a undeveloped healthcare system.

To prevent also serious deterioration in living conditions, emergency responses rooted in social protection must be developed from a rights and welfare-based perspective. To reduce poverty and improve the social protection system, it is important to move towards a guarantee of a basic income level and assess the possibility of gradually incorporating universal needs for children as well as a basic income for citizens.

Resolving the current fragmentation, hierarchisation, and commodification of health systems is one of the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic for Libya. There is also an urgent need for policies of greater scope and depth to address the social determinants of health and, in particular, nutritional health requirements. COVID-19 should be seen as a humanitarian problem, and it is the responsibility of policymakers to think more effectively about humanitarian responses in this setting.

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