Fighting must stop immediately in Libya if it is to have any chance of staving off the COVID-19 outbreak, the top United Nations official in the North African country said on Tuesday as he condemned an attack on a major Tripoli hospital.
At least one health worker was injured when the Al-Khandra General Hospital came under heavy shelling on Monday, damaging the fully-functioning 400-bed facility.
Yacoub El Hillo, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Libya, said the attack not only violated international humanitarian law, but also defied calls for a global ceasefire amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It also showed ongoing disregard for a truce announced in mid-January between the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) led by commander Khalifa Haftar that began to lay siege to the capital Tripoli, a year ago.
“This is unacceptable at a time when healthcare and health workers are vital in our fight against a global pandemic”, Mr. El Hillo said, adding that the hospital was a potential COVID-19 assigned facility.
“A deplorable strike like this – resulting in senseless damage of a most-needed medical facility – cannot be justified”, he said in a statement.
Libya racing against time to contain virus
Libya has reported 18 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus so far, and one death, according to a global situation report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday.
“Libyan health authorities, together with the UN and our humanitarian partners, have been racing against time to contain the spread of the virus”, said Mr. El Hillo, also the Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Libya.
“The conflict has since escalated into a dangerous and potentially endless proxy war fueled by cynical foreign powers that has now widened geographically, with civilians paying the highest price”, it said.
The humanitarian situation has deteriorated to unprecedented levels, it said, with UNSMIL documenting at least 356 civilian deaths and 329 injuries in the year to 31 March. Some 149,000 people in and around Tripoli have been forced to flee their homes since the offensive began; nearly 345,000 civilians remain in frontline area and an estimated 749,000 live in areas affected by fighting.
An estimated 893,000 are in need of humanitarian assistance, UNSMIL said, adding that it has received a growing number of reports of human rights violations, including hundreds of cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial executions by armed groups across Libya.
The conflict is taking a heavy toll on Libya’s already struggling economy. An oil blockade imposed on 17 January has results in more than $4 billion in financial losses, while funds that should be going into critical infrastructure are being redirected to the war effort.
“The influx of foreign fighters and advanced weapons systems into the country continues unabated and their use on the battlefield has directly lead to an intensification of the conflict,” UNSMIL said, pointing as well to a “flagrant disregard” of an embargo on arms shipments into Libya.
“If Libya is to have any chance against COVID-19, the ongoing conflict must come to an immediate halt.”
As of March, a total of 27 health facilities in Libya have sustained damage to varying degrees due to the proximity of fighting, with 14 being forced to close and the remainder at risk of following suit as lines of conflict shift.
In a statement on 4 April, the first anniversary of the start of the LNA’s offensive to seize Tripoli, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said the country was in the midst of a needless conflict that has shattered hopes for a peaceful political transition through a UN-backed National Conference and subsequent elections.