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Possible COVID-19 Outbreak in Libya to Be 'Catastrophic' Amid Protracted Conflict, UN Warns

Sputnik News

07:38 GMT 28.03.2020(updated 08:44 GMT 28.03.2020)

MOSCOW (Sputnik) - Should a COVID-19 outbreak begin in Libya, it will overwhelm the war-torn country's already overstretched healthcare system, Jennifer Bose Ratka, public information officer at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Libya, said.

"A possible outbreak of the virus would be catastrophic. Libya is at high risk of the spread of COVID-19 given its growing levels of insecurity, political fragmentation, weak health system and high numbers of migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons. Libya's already overstretched health system is not ready to deal with a spread of the virus in this fragile context caused by the protracted conflict", Ratka said.

The first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Libya on 25 March. The country's response measures risk being greatly undermined by a long-lasting conflict between two rival administrations, in the East and the West, with ongoing occasional armed hostilities.

"As Libyan hospitals continue to take in injured fighters following a consistently ignored ceasefire in 2020, these medical establishments will now have to brace for the task of containment of COVID-19. The lack of well-equipped intensive care units and medical equipment means that the country will struggle to deal with a major outbreak. With an already weak health system and with most Libyans seeking health care abroad, the implications of a serious COVID-19 outbreak in Libya could be catastrophic", Ratka said.

Last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called upon the rival governments to lay down their arms and adhere to a temporary draft ceasefire agreement negotiated by the Libyan Joint Military Commission (5+5) in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Humanitarian Barriers Amid COVID-19 Curfews

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Libya has received 164 reports from humanitarian actors about difficulties regarding access brought about by COVID-19 related curfews, according to the official.

"Ongoing clashes, along with COVID-19 restriction measures, hamper humanitarian access to those who need assistance and the free movement of medical and other humanitarian personnel in the country. We received 164 reports from various humanitarian actors on access constraints linked with the COVID-19 related curfews being imposed in East, West, and South Libya", Ratka said.

Earlier this week, another international humanitarian agency, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), announced it would suspend some of its operations in Libya, particularly with regard to activities in refugee arrival centres and detention facilities, in light of the shortage of personal protective equipment for its staff. It has sparked concerns within the migrant community in Libya that they will end up cut off from international aid.

"OCHA is not scaling back and our staff is fully engaged, supporting the development of preparedness and response plans, bolstering coordination and providing information management services", Ratka said.

She said the agency had taken measures to change the way it operates in line with WHO and national guidelines to minimise the risk of viral transmissions, particularly by adhering to a do-no-harm approach that includes remote coordination by virtual means and increased social distancing on the ground.

"With almost 900,000 people in Libya in need of emergency assistance, we are here to support the response to the pandemic and ensure that we can continue to deliver assistance to the most vulnerable including refugees, migrants, and displaced people", Ratka said.

On 'Very Limited Funds' Available in Libya Amid COVID-19

The shortage of funds available for Libya to tackle the coronavirus pandemic is a further strain on the war-torn country's weakened economy with humanitarian access difficulties, Jennifer Bose Ratka said.

"Very limited funds are available for preparedness and response activities in Libya to date, despite announcements for support, while the 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan is only 2 percent", Ratka said.

The 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan that she mentioned was launched by the United Nations on Wednesday to stream some $2 billion into the world's most vulnerable countries to handle the spread of COVID-19. Coordinated by OCHA, it brings together appeals from the World Health Organisation and other UN humanitarian agencies.

Ratka said the pandemic was already compounding Libya's tenuous economic situation and this will likely "significantly hamper the humanitarian response to the broader Libya crisis", specifically with regard to assistance to migrants, refugees, and the more than 345,000 people located in the conflict's frontline areas, which per se makes them even more vulnerable to COVID-19.

"Through our coordination mandate, our role is to minimise the humanitarian consequences of COVID-19 and work with humanitarian partners to ensure we continue to deliver the most critical services to the most vulnerable people", Ratka continued.

According to her, OCHA's assistance in Libya covers the coordination of medical equipment and tests, handwashing stations and other sanitation support, essential public information campaigns, training for national health workers, and logistics.


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