How has COVID-19 impacted the war in Libya?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Mary Fitzgerald
Mary Fitzgerald

Journalist and analyst specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya, European Young Leader Alumna

Photo of This article is part of Friends of Europe’s series on the dynamics of conflict prevention and resolution as part of our Peace, Security and Defence pillar.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s series on the dynamics of conflict prevention and resolution as part of our Peace, Security and Defence pillar.

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Show more information on This article is part of Friends of Europe’s series on the dynamics of conflict prevention and resolution as part of our Peace, Security and Defence pillar.

Despite numerous peace efforts undertaken by the international community, ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine and other parts of the world, still affect global and regional stability and security. Many have continued for years, and even decades. At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, hopes were high that ceasefires for humanitarian assistance and the offer of lifting international sanctions in exchange for political commitments could be a stepping-stone to resolving conflicts and fostering peace. But the root causes of conflicts remain unchanged. Complex constellations of diverse political and socio-economic factors, such as disputed territory, the role of terrorist groups, access to weapons and funding, support from diaspora groups, as well as the disruptive influence and interference of international powers, play a decisive role in impeding further progress.

This article series focuses on the costs and lessons learned from previous interventions, the role and efficacy of international institutions, agreements and interventions, and the prospects of ongoing conflict resolution approaches. It will examine factors conducive to conflict and insecurity, such as social inequalities and structural violence, and how to address them via sustainable social and economic rights, increased reconciliation and high levels of resilience to create durable positive peace. Furthermore, the elements defining the direction and lasting consequences of these conflicts such as political choices, economic consequences, the effects on civil society, and the role of women will be a central consideration.

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Few images have captured Libya’s crisis in a time of COVID-19 better than that taken by Egyptian-Canadian photojournalist Amru Salahuddien in late March. It shows a fighter on the Tripoli frontline, his gun poised. His face is obscured not with a balaclava but a blue surgical mask to guard against coronavirus. At the time, the pandemic had only just started making itself felt in war-torn Libya.

Fast forward four months: Libya’s National Centre for Disease Control announced July 6 that five people had died of COVID-19 in one 24 hour cycle, the highest daily toll since the beginning of the outbreak. More than 1,117 cases have been confirmed since March, including 34 deaths and 269 recoveries. There are fears the real number could be much higher. The interior ministry of the internationally recognised government in Tripoli – which has already imposed curfews and social distancing measures – is mulling how to tighten restrictions. Rival authorities in eastern Libya have tried to silence those, including doctors, who have criticised their handling of the situation.

Libya – a vast country where a majority of its 6 million population lives in coastal cities and towns – finds itself caught between conflict and COVID-19. When the National Centre for Disease Control confirmed the country’s first case in late March, the capital had been besieged for almost a year by the forces of Khalifa Haftar, a septuagenarian commander in eastern Libya supported by the UAE, Egypt, Russia and France. Haftar, whose opponents accuse of seeking to impose himself as military ruler, had initially claimed he could swiftly take Tripoli after launching an offensive just days before a UN-mediated national conference was due to take place. Instead, he sparked a grinding war that killed thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands, and torpedoed the UN process. The UN says most civilian casualties are attributable to Haftar’s forces, which include Russian mercenaries.

Libya’s collapsing medical sector suffered decades of neglect under Gaddafi and has not fared any better in the years following his ousting

In late May, Haftar’s forces were pushed back from Tripoli after Turkey intervened on the side of the government, providing it with drones, military trainers and – controversially – Syrian mercenaries. But the war is not over, as the government in Tripoli eyes the town of Sirte and Jufra airbase, two key Haftar assets.

Even if Libya had been at peace when COVID-19 made its way there, the country is extremely vulnerable to health emergencies. Libya’s collapsing medical sector suffered decades of neglect under Gaddafi and has not fared any better in the years following his ousting. Doctor friends regularly complain about being under-equipped and under-resourced. Libyans who can afford it travel abroad for medical treatment. The healthcare situation in the remote and long marginalised Fezzan area of Libya’s southern belt is particularly grim: its regional capital, Sebha, recently experienced a surge in COVID-19.

Poor existing health infrastructure and repeated attacks by belligerents on hospitals and other medical facilities contributed to the World Health Organization’s decision to include Libya as one of the 27 countries “most vulnerable to emerging outbreaks of illness”. It has reported at least 15 deadly attacks on healthcare this year, damaging more than eight medical facilities including the Tripoli hospital earmarked as a key COVID-19 centre. At one point during the Tripoli war, armed groups targeted the city’s water supply, impeding efforts to maintain basic virus prevention measures, such as hand-washing.

Turkey and Russia are now considered the new power brokers and Europe risks irrelevance

Of particular concern are those in precarious situations – the internally displaced, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in urban settings and detention centres – who may have difficulty accessing health care. The fact the humanitarian space has shrunk due to travel and security restrictions on international organisations has exacerbated what was already a spiralling crisis. In a country that imports most of its food, a global pandemic that disrupts supply chains risks causing serious food shortages.

Even before COVID-19 struck, the war in Libya was considered low on the list of European priorities, despite the fact that a deepening conflict there can have all kinds of consequences for the continent, particularly its southern rim. With the contours of the war shifting in recent weeks, Turkey and Russia are now considered the new power brokers and Europe risks irrelevance.

It should reassert itself by boosting attempts to secure a ceasefire and revive the political process, while contributing to humanitarian efforts.

With Libya’s existing economic and social challenges now multiplied by COVID-19, the country needs all the help it can get.


IMAGE CREDIT: Amru Salahuddien

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