Libyan health facilities under attack as coronavirus threat looms

Medics inspect a damaged car at the parking lot of Khadra General Hospital, dedicated to treating people infected with coronavirus, in Tripoli on April 8, 2020. (AFP)

Libya’s almost decade-long conflict is setting the country up for a disastrous coronavirus outbreak, experts and international organizations warn.

While some countries are preparing medical facilities and water supplies in response to the coronavirus, in Libya warring factions are heightening the risk of a COVID-19 crisis with attacks on medical facilities and cuts to water supplies.

Hospitals and clinics - institutions that should be on the frontlines of a battle against the novel coronavirus - are instead being “frequently targeted by the various armed groups and militias,” according to Umberto Profazio, an analyst at the NATO Foundation.

Last week the Khadra hospital in Libya’s capital city of Tripoli came under fire from projectiles and was forced to evacuate suspected COVID-19 patients.

The attack, denounced by the UN humanitarian coordinator as “a clear violation of international humanitarian law,” is just one example of how hospitals, ambulances, and medics have fallen victim to the conflict.

A man looks at a shrapnel hole in the wall of the Khadra General Hospital which is dedicated to treating people infected with coronavirus (COVID-19) in Tripoli on April 8, 2020. (AFP)

A man looks at a shrapnel hole in the wall of the Khadra General Hospital which is dedicated to treating people infected with coronavirus (COVID-19) in Tripoli on April 8, 2020. (AFP)

Former senior coordinator for US Assistance to Libya Megan Doherty warned it will be impossible to contain the coronavirus in Libya’s current war situation, with medical centers and staff caught in the crossfire.

“Hospitals and clinics that should be training staff and preparing to receive COVID-19 cases are either directly in the line of the fire or having resources diverted to the conflict,” said Doherty, now a senior director for policy and advocacy at Mercy Corps, in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

COVID-19 patients are competing for medical attention with the war wounded, according to Doherty, who said there is concern doctors and nurses will be pressured to prioritize fighters over coronavirus patients.

The lack of testing facilities in the southern region poses an additional challenge, as well as the 200,000 displaced Libyans sheltering in shared homes - unable to quarantine or socially distance in the event of infection.

“All of this means that Libya is unprepared to contain this devastating pandemic and that the conflict will make it harder to save lives,” said Doherty.

A Libyan woman displaced from the town of Tawergha fills containers with water at a displaced camp in Benghazi, Libya, June 19, 2019. (Reuters)

A Libyan woman displaced from the town of Tawergha fills containers with water at a displaced camp in Benghazi, Libya, June 19, 2019. (Reuters)

Though Libya has only reported 25 coronavirus cases, the number is likely underreported due to shortage of test kits and obstacles to safe access of testing facilities, according to Doherty.

Libya designated high-risk by WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified Libya among its high-risk countries for COVID-19 as “almost 10 years of conflict have heavily affected the capacity of the national health system,” according to Elizabeth Hoff, WHO’s representative in Libya.

“WHO’s assessment of Libya’s detection and response capacities for COVID-19 revealed several weaknesses in the health system,” Hoff said in an interview with Al Arabiya English, citing deficiencies in laboratory testing and contact tracing.

Hoff said the WHO is coordinating with domestic health partners to expand and increase preparedness for COVID-19 in Libya.

But simple coronavirus mitigation measures, such as washing hands to prevent contagion, are being obstructed for some civilians who experienced cuts to their water and power supplies in Tripoli last week.

The water provider, the Great Man Made River project, said on Facebook that gunmen stormed a control room, cutting the flow, while the electricity company blamed the shortage on a technical fault.

Pleas for peace

As the invisible enemy of COVID-19 infiltrates Libya, the fastest way to save lives is to work swiftly to end the conflict, Doherty said.

However, Profazio expressed doubt that a solution may be within reach.

“The chances that the pandemic could bring an end to the conflict are very dim,” said Profazio in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

“The new phase of the civil war is considered decisive for the final outcome and the conflict has so far remained indifferent to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he added.

Fighters from the Libyan National Army attend their graduation ceremony at a military academy in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi on April 17, 2019. (AP)

Fighters from the Libyan National Army attend their graduation ceremony at a military academy in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi on April 17, 2019. (AP)

Since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has been embroiled in conflict despite efforts to transition the country to a stable democratic system.

The two dominant parties competing for power are the Libyan National Army (LNA) headed by General Khalifa Haftar, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, and the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Fayez al-Sarraj, based in Tripoli.

Without a change of leadership in both camps, it is difficult to imagine a peaceful solution, according to Profazio.

Though a long-standing political solution may not be attainable at the moment, other countries and international organizations like the UN are calling for at least a temporary ceasefire. Both the GNA and LNA have defied the request.

A ceasefire would allow “desperately overstretched hospitals and clinics to restock and train the health workers” on the frontlines of Libya’s coronavirus response team, according to Doherty.

A fighter loyal to the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) fires a truck-mounted gun during clashes in Tripoli's suburb of Ain Zara, on September 7, 2019. (AP)

A fighter loyal to the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) fires a truck-mounted gun during clashes in Tripoli's suburb of Ain Zara, on September 7, 2019. (AP)

The acting United Nations envoy to Libya on Thursday called the continuation of the conflict “incredibly reckless” and said it is stretching capacity of the local authorities and an already devastated health infrastructure.

“Every call for a truce, even when it’s accepted by both sides, seems to inevitably lead to an escalation,” Stephanie Williams said during an interview with Bloomberg.

“They are whistling past the graveyard, that’s what they’re doing,” added Williams.

- Al Arabiya English's Tommy Hilton contributed to this report.

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