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The coronavirus pandemic and its fallout will worsen the humanitarian suffering of Libya’s civil war, now entering its second year, and possibly reconfigure the tempo and geographic scope of the conflict. Early attempts to halt the hostilities in order to deal with the outbreak have faltered; so far, the warring parties and their foreign backers seem committed to escalating the fighting around Tripoli.

A number of factors make Libya uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic, and its current small number of registered cases likely reflects underreporting and a lack of testing. Its medical capacity, already weak under former dictator Muammar Qaddafi, has been severely degraded by years of neglect and corruption. The outbreak of the civil war’s latest phase in April 2019 further compounded the damage to the health system. As militias led by eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar attacked the capital, Tripoli, to topple the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), Haftar’s forces chose to target medical personnel and facilities—more than sixty attacks, by one count.

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
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To date, the combatants have ignored international calls for a ceasefire to deal with the virus; in fact, the fighting has escalated, with Haftar-aligned forces continuing to attack civilian infrastructure, most notably a hospital treating coronavirus patients. International intervention has also continued unabated, with thousands of mercenaries, including Syrians, Russians, and Sudanese, flowing into both sides and acting as potential pathogen vectors. Libya has clusters of vulnerable people who are uniquely exposed: the 200,000 displaced Libyans living in crowded improvised shelters, as well as thousands of migrants, many from sub-Saharan Africa, who languish in cramped detention centers and are already afflicted by torture, forced labor, shelling, and outbreaks of diseases like tuberculosis. Aside from the catastrophic health effects of coronavirus in these centers, the migrants could be subjected to increased stigmatization and violence.

Government capacity and divisions are further obstacles to managing the pandemic. The country is split between two rival administrations, in Tripoli and in the east, though neither exerts much authority over Libya’s hyperfragmented towns and regions. In these areas, a hybrid governance holds sway, comprising local town councils, kin groups, and armed groups (which enjoy community support in some areas). A mounting fiscal crisis wrought by dwindling oil prices, a blockade of oil ports by Haftar’s forces, and a global recession will hit the country hard, as the vast majority of the population depends on state rents in the form of jobs and subsidies. Already, the closures of shops and trade have prompted a spike in the price of basic foodstuffs, which has badly hurt citizens reeling from delayed salaries; electricity and water cutoffs; and shortages of cash, gasoline, and cooking fuel. The well-being of Libyan women has been especially damaged, given their dependence on the informal economy, lack of access to health services, and an increase in domestic abuse. Political battles over control of the Tripoli-based Central Bank, armed group predation of state resources, uneven distribution of funds to municipalities, and both sides’ preference to pay fighters and mercenaries rather than civilian officials will further compound the pandemic’s deleterious economic effects.

In spite of these broader shortcomings, a modest public health mobilization to the virus has been occurring at the local level. Town governments, civil society, and trusted community leaders have begun to engage in activities like awareness and sterilization campaigns. The outbreak is a “milestone in local governance,” Libya’s former head of municipal elections, Dr. Otman Gajiji, said in a telephone interview in early April. He noted that elected municipal officials are mobilizing with a newfound sense of collective action to convey their demands to the GNA. The crisis could therefore provide an impetus for the sclerotic administration in Tripoli to finally push more fiscal authority to local governments—the passage of a recent law on local revenue generation is one step in that direction. But even in this crisis, enormous bureaucratic and cultural barriers remain to a formal decentralization of public health initiatives, both in Tripoli and in the eas. In sum, there are limits to how much local actors will be able to accomplish without financial and material support from the top.

As infections spread, the pandemic could give a boost to Libya’s militias, who are likely to channel medical aid to their fighters and favored communities while isolating others. Armed groups could also instrumentalize and weaponize the public health crisis to further their political and social influence. Already, militias have been acting as de facto police in many areas. Those adhering to the conservative Salafi current known as Madkhalism in particular have portrayed their activism as serving the public welfare by countering narcotics and other illicit activities; enforcement of public hygiene could be one more justification for their presence. Similarly, in eastern Libya, Haftar’s militia, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), could use the pandemic as a pretext for further militarization of governance. In one remarkable instance, the LAAF arrested a Libyan doctor who publicly exposed medical shortcomings in Haftar-controlled Benghazi, and Haftar’s chief of staff has threatened the public, including health professionals.

Moving forward, the pandemic’s immediate impact will be especially punishing on displaced persons and migrants. Its second- and third-order effects will likely damage long-term prospects for peace and cohesion, further empower armed actors, and possibly open up new, more localized conflicts in a nearly ten-year power struggle that shows no signs of abating.