According to official statistics COVID-19 has barely affected Libya, but the true number of cases is likely underreported. An ongoing civil war, a large refugee and migrant population, and a deficient healthcare system threaten to exacerbate the spread of the disease, further destabilizing a country already devastated by years of conflict.
To date, the Libyan National Center for Disease Control has reported sixty-four COVID-19 infections and three deaths. The country’s ability to monitor the outbreak is very limited; as of May 7, the country has performed only 2,338 tests. To forestall further infections, the Government of National Accord imposed a ten-day, 24-hour curfew in areas under its control from April 17, forbade intercity travel, banned driving, and closed the country’s borders and airspace.
“Now is not the time to reduce caution,” says Elizabeth Hoff, head of mission for the World Health Organization in Libya. “The low numbers reported should not fool us into a false sense of security. Libya is in the early stages of the epidemic and has not yet reached the height of infection. Until the test becomes more widespread, it will be impossible to ascertain the extent of the disease and its geographical spread.”
Hospitals Under Attack
The pandemic comes amid the long-running civil war between the Tripoli-based, UN-backed government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), and the eastern-based government backed by the House of Representatives, which has aligned itself with Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). As Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has noted, the latest stage of the conflict, which began in April 2019 when Haftar’s forces launched an attack on Tripoli, has further compounded the damage to Libya’s already weak health system.
The International Rescue Committee reported in March that there had been sixty-two attacks on hospitals and other health facilities in the previous year, and in April rockets fired by the LNA struck Al-Khadra General Hospital in Tripoli, where COVID-19 patients are treated. “This is a health system that was close to collapse before you got COVID-19,” Hoff says.
The Pandemic Could Be Catastrophic for Migrants
The country’s sizable population of refugees and migrants—an estimated 700,000 in total—further intensifies the crisis. Many of them reside in densely populated, unhygienic detention centers where other diseases, rape, extortion, and abuse are prevalent. A spokesman for the UN International Organization for Migration has warned that an outbreak of COVID-19 would be “truly catastrophic” for this population.
“International intervention has also continued unabated” in the civil war, writes Wehrey, “with thousands of mercenaries, including Syrians, Russians, and Sudanese, flowing into both sides and acting as potential pathogen vectors.”
The Conflict Has to End
A UN official has warned that failure to end the civil war would likely lead to further infections. “If Libya is to have any chance against COVID-19, the ongoing conflict must come to an immediate halt,” said Yacoub El Hillo, the UN secretary-general’s deputy special representative in Libya as he condemned the latest attack on the Tripoli hospital.
An immediate end to the war, however, remains unlikely. On April 20, the UN Support Mission in Libya issued a statement expressing “grave concern” about “the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Tripoli and its surroundings as a result of the intensification of fighting in the past few days”. This fighting, the statement continued, had resulted in the wounding of at least twenty-eight civilians and five deaths. “Indiscriminate attacks,” the statement added, could “amount to war crimes.” Four days later, shelling of Tripoli by Haftar’s forces killed another three civilians.
The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court warned of potential war crimes in Libya.
For now, though, pro-GNA forces appear to have the upper hand. The GNA has said it was close to breaking Haftar’s siege of Tripoli after pro-GNA forces had seized several key towns in the west. Those forces have begun a siege on the town of Tarhouna, Haftar’s key western stronghold.
On April 27, Haftar declared in a televised speech that the 2015 UN-brokered agreement to unite the country was a “thing of the past”, and that he would form a new government for the entire country. This statement further inflamed tensions between the east and the west. Two days later, Haftar’s forces declared a unilateral ceasefire, noting that it was responding to international calls for a humanitarian pause during the holy month of Ramadan, but the GNA rejected the truce, suspecting Haftar was using it merely to resupply his forces.
Since then, hostilities have resumed. On May 5, Fatou Bensouda, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, warned of potential war crimes in Libya. Meanwhile, Prime Minister al-Sarraj called for a resumption of UN-brokered talks.
Should the two sides lay down their arms, they may be able to refocus their attention on combatting COVID-19. In the meantime, the civilian population caught in the middle will continue to pay a heavy price.
Tzvi Kahn is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow Tzvi on Twitter @TzviKahn. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. Based in Washington, D.C., FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.