March 24, 2020 / 4:53 PM / 14 days ago

Hit by war and oil blockade, Libya prepares for pandemic

MISRATA, Libya, March 24 (Reuters) - Both the warring factions in Libya have imposed lockdowns to guard against the coronavirus but fighting is still going on, compounding difficulties the country faces in preparing to combat the disease.

So far, testing has confirmed no cases there. But officials are worried about what will happen if and when it does.

“This is a health system that was close to collapse before you get the coronavirus,” said Elizabeth Hoff, head of mission for the World Health Organisation in Libya.

Both the internationally recognised government in Tripoli, in the west, and a rival administration ruling from Benghazi in the east have imposed lockdowns, stopped foreign travel and promised resources for the health service.

The eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA)has been trying to capture Tripoli since last year. Despite a ceasefire call by the United Nations last week to allow all sides to focus on preparing for the pandemic, fighting has continued, with shelling reported by both sides.

Equipment for testing is limited, there is very little protective gear and there is a severe shortage of medical workers, particularly in rural areas, Hoff said.

“There is a national plan, but funding has not yet been allocated for implementation,” she said.

A blockade of oil ports by forces aligned with the LNA in eastern Libya has cut off most revenue to the Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli, which funds state institutions and the salaries of public workers across the country.

A doctor in a medical centre in Tripoli said she had not been paid since last year.

The parallel central bank in Benghazi, set up by the eastern administration, said on Tuesday it paid salaries to government workers in east Libyan areas for the first time this year, but a doctor said no money had arrived in his account.

Some medics in Benghazi had refused to work at a hospital over the lack of pay and adequate protective gear, a doctor there said, but the problem was later resolved.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), an international medical charity working in Tripoli, said the latest bout of warfare had made things worse.

“Libya...is a high-risk country essentially due to the deficiencies of the Libyan healthcare system that has been further impacted by the latest armed conflict,” said Joris de Jongh, MSF project coordinator in Tripoli.

In Misrata, a port city held by forces loyal to the internationally recognised government in Tripoli to its west, cleaning companies disinfected parks and public gardens.

Volunteers distributed face masks and gloves as people entered banks, where marks on the floor showed where to stand to ensure a safe distance from others waiting in line.

“If we sit down and do nothing, waiting for the government, we won’t get any results,” said Taher Alzarooq, a 55-year-old volunteer.

Reporting by Ayman al-Sahili in Misrata; Writing and additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Tunis; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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