In Libya, more concern about pandemic than over ongoing war

Libyans worry about a lack of preparedness to cope with COVID-19.
Sunday 05/04/2020
Libyans wear protective masks, as part of precautionary measures against spread of COVID-19, as they stand in a queue at a bank in Misrata. (Reuters)
Scarier than war. Libyans wear protective masks, as part of precautionary measures against spread of COVID-19, as they stand in a queue at a bank in Misrata. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Although North Africa has reported 43% of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the African continent, as well as the highest number of deaths, Libya has not been affected much by the pandemic.

Until March 24, Libya had no confirmed cases and, by April 3, it had registered just 11 cases and 1 death, miniscule numbers compared with those of neighbouring Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

Ironically, Libya’s political crisis seems to have isolated it to a large extent from the global outbreak.

Over the past six years, Libya has had only limited outside air links and almost none to Europe. Internally, too, Libyans have been moving a lot less because of political divisions and safety concerns.

But despite the relatively low level of infections, Libyans appear more worried about the virus than in neighbouring countries. The concerns about clashes and missile strikes in Tripoli almost pale in comparison to the perceived threat of COVID-19.

Fully aware of the country’s dire lack of facilities to combat a severe health crisis, people feel particularly vulnerable. Testing has been abysmally low because of the lack of equipment, while ventilators, too, are in short supply. The health ministry in Tripoli said late last month that it had ordered 150 ventilators, but this is likely to be a drop in the ocean compared with what would be needed if the pandemic spreads.

People have generally respected curfew measures, although the timing depends on where they are in the country. Despite fears, people have also been doing what they can to help. In the deep southern Obari area, women have started making face masks for local healthcare workers. In Sebha, young volunteers have helped disinfect the streets.

However, in a country that imports almost everything, there are growing concerns about food supplies. Government food stocks in the west are reported to have run out, while imports from Tunisia have stopped with the closure of the border. Private imports are still arriving, mainly at Misrata port, but there are growing reports of panic shopping in the capital Tripoli as shelves in stores start to empty and prices rise. The price of beef has gone up 50% in the city over the past five weeks. In the east, there are no problems with food. Imports are still coming in across the Egyptian border.

In both east and west, though, there is growing public anger at the country’s lack of preparedness and authorities’ prioritisation of the military struggle over the health of the Libyan people.

The UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, has come under considerable criticism for its handling of the crisis, in particular its perceived attempt to shift responsibility for dealing with the pandemic onto local municipalities. Sarraj’s deputy health minister, Mohamed Haitham Issa, who has taken the lead in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, is reportedly planning to transfer health-care responsibility to the municipalities.

The situation in the west is not helped by growing public hostility to the GNA health minister and Sarraj’s deputy, who has faced accusations of corruption. This resulted in the minister offering his resignation on March 31.

In the east, where there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus, there is growing disquiet at the appointment of the Libyan National Army (LNA) Chief of Staff Major-General Abdul-Razzaq al-Nazhuri as head of the committee dealing with the pandemic. “It should be run by an expert not an army officer,” said one otherwise loyal LNA supporter.

China has reportedly expressed willingness to help. According to the GNA’s foreign ministry, Chinese President Xi Jinping has written to Sarraj offering equipment as well as distance training for medics. However, this has raised questions about what help China will offer to the east.

While the virus starts to spread, Libya’s military conflict continues to escalate, despite the two sides’ claims to support a pause in order to address the pandemic. There are now three distinct fronts: in Tripoli, where the LNA offensive has entered its second year, in the far west near the Tunisian border and in the area near Abu Grein, halfway between Misrata and Sirte, which switched sides and joined with Haftar in January. Fighting in that area, triggered last month when Misratan forces launched a failed offensive to smash LNA forces there, has been bloodier than almost any battle in Libya over the past year.

In Tripoli, the LNA went on the attack, hoping to take the key suburb of Abu Sleem. But intense GNA artillery bombardment forced the LNA to pull back.

The main action may now move towards the Tunisian border. Following a failed GNA attack on Watiya air base, the LNA was able to consolidate its control of five towns in the area.

There are growing expectations that the LNA will now launch an attack to take the largest town in the district, Zuwara, and the nearby border crossing of Ras Jedir.

If it does, it could risk plunging Libya into an ethnic civil war between the Amazigh (Berber) minority and the Arab majority. In Zuwara, the main Amazigh town in Libya, several thousand well armed fighters could now get involved in the fighting.

Furthermore, a long-standing power struggle between Sarraj and governor of Libya’s Central Bank (CBL) Saddek Elkaber has again taken centre stage. Sarraj has called for a meeting of the CBL’s board of directors in order to reunite the bank with the parallel central bank based in Benghazi. Elkaber has rejected the move, claiming that Sarraj has no authority to make the call.

For ordinary Libyans, the coronavirus outbreak is now the prime issue and they want unity among their leaders to defeat it. Anger at the country’s lack of preparedness, as well as the two leaderships’ handling of the crisis and  determination to continue fighting could have serious consequences once the crisis is over.

The pandemic could eventually alter the nature and balance of power in Libya as well as its political landscape.