North Africa, West Asia

A Libya story: pandemic and human rights in times of conflict

How does a fragmented state fight a global pandemic?

Tarek Megerisi
4 May 2020, 12.01am
UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) fighters wearing face masks take positions during clashes with East-based Libyan National Army (LNA) at Ain-Zara frontline in Tripoli, Libya, March 25, 2020
Picture by Pan Xiaojing/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved

This article is part of a series of opinion pieces about Libya’s response to the pandemic within the ongoing conflict, through a human rights lens. The series is published in partnership with Lawyers for Justice in Libya , under the title "Libya: between conflict and pandemic, what hope for human rights?"

For Libya, a state that has been decaying for 9 years amidst outbreaks of horrific violence such as the now year long assault on its capital Tripoli, a global pandemic is the last thing it needs. So much so that even whilst the rest of the world sacrifice their economies on the alter of public health, Libya has simply told Covid-19 to wait its turn. This may seem understandable given that during March coronavirus had officially claimed ten cases, whilst the war had over 800 casualties. However, it could prove a catastrophic miscalculation given how inadequately prepared Libya would be to fight a serious outbreak.

After all, since 2011’s revolution against Muammar al-Gaddafi, the idea of a state that can administer all areas of this expansive country has failed to materialise. Instead, Libya has almost become a Matryoshka doll of states: one country now holds two central authorities (one in the east and one in the west), and each unpacks into myriad city, tribal or municipality based administrations.

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It’s a paradigm that both provides Libya a unique approach to fighting this virus and gravely undermines that same advantage. The local knowledge, accountability and support mechanisms of smaller governance units theoretically makes them better able to track and contain cases; which currently seems to be the accepted wisdom on best practice for engaging this crisis. However, the inability of the two central authorities to devolve resources competently, create effective replicable procedures, or a unified message that can engage the population, means that each of these local units are isolated and constrained by an inability to leverage the capacity or material benefits of working with their counterparts.

Whilst the rest of the world sacrifice their economies on the alter of public health, Libya has simply told Covid-19 to wait its turn

Libya’s Government of National Accord seemed at least to recognise its predicament, and initially attempted to direct Covid-19 budgets towards municipalities to allow them to directly deal with this issue. However, the difficulty of grappling with the intricacies of Libya’s budgetary requirements (which demands that certain percentages are spent on specific, not always relevant items like transport) and the embedded corruption therein meant there was little benefit to be had. This means that many municipalities, which are already using up their budgets dealing with the extraordinary costs associated with the war, are having to sacrifice more of their regular budget in preparations. This also means that by the time the catastrophe hits, local coffers may well be dry.

Of course, aggravating all these problems is the ongoing war which overshadows and undermines any Covid-19 response. For example, Libya’s largest city and capital, Tripoli, which is currently home to almost half the population given the hundreds of thousands of IDPs who have sought sanctuary over the past decade, is under daily indiscriminate shelling. There is no more powerful way to undermine a lockdown than a pervasive fear that rockets or artillery shells could explode your residence at any moment. This has been made worse by the systematic targeting of Tripoli’s main hospital and medical facilities more generally by the attacking force and moves to cut the city’s water supply.

There is no more powerful way to undermine a lockdown than a pervasive fear that rockets or artillery shells could explode your residence at any moment

Worse still, the oil blockade imposed since January by the renegade general prosecuting this war has imposed serious financial constraints on a state that not only relies on imports for nearly everything but will also have additional budgetary tolls from its Covid-19 response. Initially this meant that the system Libyan importers use for everything from pharmaceuticals to basic goods, a central bank issued letter of credit were unavailable. Although these restrictions were eventually eased, it has coalesced with general attacks from both sides on the other’s supply lines, as well as the imperatives of war to create shortages in basic goods.

This distressing mixture of war, shortages, and fear over Covid-19’s many unknowns is yet one more force to push further atomisation and stir popular unrest. If severe outbreaks do occur, we could see key port cities closing themselves off from the rest of the country to try and hoard resources, under a worsening mentality of every city or tribe for themselves.

In eastern Libya, instead of leading too attempts to work with Tripoli’s GNA in a functional manner or with the municipality devolved budgets, a fear of unrest led to the military-style administration in de-facto power to take control of the Covid-19 response and threaten dissenters as treasonous. This followed a spree of protests after people were ordered into curfew before they were able to withdraw any money from banks still suffering a severe liquidity crisis.

Those protests and the fearful response to them highlight the potential for turbulence should Covid-19 take hold in Libya. Libya’s healthcare system was in ruins well before this latest war started, and its resources have only been further consumed and depleted by the voracious requirements of this now stagnant war on Tripoli. Meanwhile, Libya’s Centre for Disease Control is learning the extreme difficulties of emergency procurement amidst a global pandemic. Historically, Libyans would go abroad to seek treatment for any serious condition but given the closed borders of a world in lockdown, this too is now an impossibility. These are factors which all starkly highlight Libya’s complete inability to deal with the exponential rise in cases that we’ve seen elsewhere.

Libya’s healthcare system was in ruins well before this latest war started

What could happen in such a macabre eventuality is thankfully confined to the realms of speculation today. However, if as elsewhere Covid-19 outbreaks highlight the inadequacies of governments and aggravates existing trends, then we have a recipe for significant upheaval. The difficulties of everyday life given shortages and rolling electricity cuts, if combined with widespread death and pestilence, could very quickly equate to rage with the deeply corrupt authorities across all Libya. For better this would result in calls and cooperation for something better, for worse it would lead to further destruction, degradation of existing infrastructure, and atomisation of the country.

However, Covid-19 could have the last laugh over the war which once relegated it. Given the density of people on the front lines, any widespread outbreak could in-turn cause widespread desertion. Such an outcome would leave Libya’s belligerent surrounded only by mercenaries as a stark image of just how disconnected it all is from the needs, rights and aspirations of the Libyan people.

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