Libya: People caught between bullets, bombs and now COVID-19

Hundreds of thousands of Libyans are caught in an intensifying conflict as COVID-19 threatens to spread and debilitate the country’s fragile health system. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) fears that the virus will compound the suffering of conflict-affected families, who are already struggling to meet basic needs, from shelter to food, water, and medical care.

“The Libyan health care system was struggling before COVID-19,” said Willem de Jonge, ICRC’s head of operations for Libya. “Today, some medical professionals who need to be trained on COVID-19 infection prevention protocols keep being called back to the frontlines to treat the injured. Clinics and hospitals are overwhelmed caring for war-wounded and those with chronic illnesses, so their capacity to receive COVID-19 patients is limited. They need more support and resources to face this challenge.”

Despite international calls for a ceasefire, fighting in Tripoli has escalated, forcing people to flee their homes and damaging civilian infrastructure. Some areas in Tripoli like Abu Salim have seen their patient-load quadruple in recent months, mostly due to the influx of displaced families, many of whom live in collective centres.

“Displaced Libyans, including some of our colleagues, have told us they have no choice but to return to their homes near the frontline, for fear they could bring the virus into the homes of their elderly parents or family members,” said Maria Carolina, ICRC’s deputy head of sub-delegation for Tripoli. “This highlights the unimaginable choices some people are now forced to make as they struggle to decide whether shelling and airstrikes pose a greater threat to their lives than COVID-19.”

Special preventive measures must also be taken to ensure that COVID-19 does not enter prisons, as physical distancing is impossible. Migrants in Libya are also highly vulnerable to the disease, as many have only limited access to information, health care, or income.

At the same time, restrictions such as curfews and border closures, while important in curbing the spread of the disease, are creating new challenges to deliver humanitarian aid and keep the supply chains for food, medicine, and basic needs open. “Authorities must ensure that delivery of humanitarian aid is facilitated while maintaining preventive measures such as physical distancing, or those who depend on it will suffer tremendously,” said Jonge.

“We are already seeing the cost of food and other essential supplies increase, putting an additional strain on some of Libya’s most vulnerable families. COVID-19 comes on top of years of conflict in which families have seen their public services interrupted and job opportunities vanish.”