War and pandemic compound Libya’s humanitarian crisis

AS the case count is increasing, there are fears that a major COVID-19 outbreak could overwhelm the country’s health system, left in shambles by nine years of conflict.
Friday 21/08/2020
Displaced Libyans fill water bottles from a tank outside an unfinished building in Tripoli. (AFP)
Displaced Libyans fill water bottles from a tank outside an unfinished building in Tripoli. (AFP)

TRIPOLI/ GENEVA - Libya's humanitarian crisis is worsening, compounded by fighting, the halt of oil operations, blockade of ports, and spread of COVID-19, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned.

ICRC President Peter Maurer drew a bleak picture Thursday upon his return from Libya: "We have seen reserves depleted, family incomes are used to survive, it has been accentuated by the offensive on Tripoli, it has been further accentuated by COVID, by oil limitations and stops," he told reporters.

Maurer spoke on his return from the divided North African country, where he held separate talks with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA).

In Libya, the ICRC provides clean water to hundreds of thousands of people in the eastern city of Benghazi, evacuates bodies from the battlefield, visits detainees and delivers medicine and protective equipment to health facilities across the country.

The ICRC chief voiced hope that a flurry of diplomatic activity, including a visit earlier this week by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, would restart the political peace process.

Employees sanitise the corridors of Benghazi Medical Centre following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Benghazi. (REUTERS)
Employees sanitise the corridors of Benghazi Medical Centre following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Benghazi. (REUTERS)

Asked about prospects for a ceasefire around the central town of Sirte, Maurer said: "The assets of the National Bank, the oil situation, the ceasefire or not around Sirte are highly political issues which need to be negotiated politically."

Libya has been split since 2014 between factions based in the east and west, and regional powers have aligned themselves with the competing sides.

Maurer said he won pledges from Sarraj and Haftar for the ICRC to increase visits to detention centres in Misrata and Tripoli, and Benghazi, respectively, that hold people detained in the conflict.

"In terms of political commitment, it was very clear that there is a readiness now to let ICRC into more places of detention," he said.

The pandemic is taking its toll on the population. War-ravaged Libya has reported its biggest daily increase yet in coronavirus infections and deaths, raising fears that a major outbreak could overwhelm its health system, left in shambles by nine years of conflict.

The current official count of confirmed cases stands at 9,707 and 173 deaths.

Libya’s case count has more than quadrupled in the last few weeks, largely due to its repatriation of stranded citizens from abroad. An alarming hot spot is the city of Sabha in the remote southern desert, where health facilities are drastically under-equipped and many citizens remain uninformed.