Conflict, division blight virus response in Libya

Members of the Libyan National Army hold a position during fighting against militants in Qanfudah, on the southern outskirts of Benghazi. (AFP/File)
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Updated 13 June 2020

Conflict, division blight virus response in Libya

  • The GNA has reported 393 coronavirus infections and five deaths nationwide, around half of them in and around Sabha

TRIPOLI: War and division are weakening Libya’s fight against the novel coronavirus, with the government struggling to deal with an outbreak deep in the desert south.
The oil-rich North African nation has been mired in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime ruler Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
The Government of National Accord (GNA) controls the west, including the capital Tripoli, while military strongman Khalifa Haftar controls the east and some of the far-flung oases and oilfields that dot the south.
With Libya already largely cut off from the rest of the world by conflict when it reported its first coronavirus case at the end of March, the situation appeared relatively contained.
Cases of infection were “very low” compared to neighboring countries, according to Badreddine Al-Najjar, head of Libya’s center for disease control.
“We even had weeks without new infections,” he said.
The rival administrations imposed curfews and closed borders, schools, businesses and mosques, in a bid to prevent often obsolete and worn-down health facilities from becoming overwhelmed.
But health measures “are difficult to apply due to the political and security context,” Najjar said.
The situation has changed rapidly in recent weeks, with dozens of cases appearing in the south’s largest oasis city Sabha.
The GNA has reported 393 coronavirus infections and five deaths nationwide, around half of them in and around Sabha.
But that only accounts for cases that the Tripoli-based disease control center has been able to confirm.
Najjar said local authorities in Sabha, which is under the control of pro-Haftar forces, were not equipped to deal with an outbreak, and initially refused the GNA’s help.

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The rival administrations imposed curfews and closed borders, schools, businesses and mosques, in a bid to prevent often obsolete and worn-down health facilities from becoming overwhelmed.

“It was difficult to open up isolation rooms ... and the equipment didn’t arrive until after a large number of infections among close contacts,” Najjar said.
“The residents did not cooperate and did not respect the preventive measures,” Najjar said. “They acted like nothing was wrong.”
Ibrahim Al-Zouay, head of the committee to fight the pandemic in Sabha, acknowledged that local authorities had been overwhelmed by the task.
“We were unable to isolate ‘patient zero’ because the number of cases grew,” he told AFP.
“The support and rapid intervention teams stuck to testing and monitoring the family and friends” of confirmed cases, he added.
Divisions and accusations of mismanagement have also marred a plan to repatriate more than 15,000 Libyans stuck abroad.
Libya lacks adequate infrastructure for quarantining arrivals on its soil, and the security situation prompted fears that armed individuals could release people from isolation by force.
So authorities decided to quarantine returnees before their repatriation instead, a decision critics say has led to new infections among those who came into contact with them.
“Each flight carrying returnees was like bringing back booby traps,” said Mahmoud Abdeldayem, who works in the civil registry in Tripoli.
“How come there were cases?” he asked, questioning the quarantine and testing arrangements prior to departure.
“There must be a problem in implementing the program.”
More than 8,000 people had been brought home before repatriations were suspended last week as fighting in the country intensified.
Mahmoud Khalfallah, a former Health Ministry adviser, said Libya’s political divisions had marred its handling of the pandemic.
“Health is above all a service. Involving it in political struggles is shameful and unacceptable,” he said.
“It’s Libyans who will pay the price.”


Iraq’s foreign minister makes first visit to Iran

Updated 26 September 2020

Iraq’s foreign minister makes first visit to Iran

  • Iran sees neighboring Iraq as a possible route to bypass US sanctions that President Donald Trump re-imposed in 2018

TEHRAN: Iraq’s foreign minister arrived Saturday in Tehran for bilateral talks with senior Iranian officials, according to the state-run news agency.
IRNA reported that Fuad Hussein planned to meet his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, in what marked his first visit to the Iranian capital.
Zarif visited Baghdad in mid-July, when he met with Hussein and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. It was Zarif’s first visit to Iraq since a US airstrike in January killed a top Iranian general, Qassim Soleimani, outside Baghdad’s international airport. The strike catapulted Iraq to the brink of a US-Iran proxy war that could have destabilized the Middle East.
After Zarif’s trip, the Iraqi premier visited Iran in July.
The report did not elaborate on the main reasons behind the top Iraqi diplomat’s two-day trip to Tehran.
Iran sees neighboring Iraq as a possible route to bypass US sanctions that President Donald Trump re-imposed in 2018 after pulling the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
Last year, Iran’s exports to Iraq amounted to nearly $9 billion, the official IRNA news agency reported on Tuesday. It said the two nations will discuss increasing the amount to $20 billion.
Before the current global pandemic, some 5 million Iranian pilgrims annually brought in nearly $5 billion visiting Iraq’s Shiite holy sites.
Iran has seen the worst outbreak in the region, with more than 443,000 thousand confirmed cases and at least 25,300 deaths.
A news website affiliated with Iranian state TV, yjc.ir, reported that Iran canceled all its flights to Iraqi cities until the religious holiday of Arbaeen, due to concerns over the coronavirus outbreak. The holiday marks the end of the forty days of mourning that follow annually on the death anniversary of the seventh-century Muslim leader Hussein, who was killed at the Battle of Karbala during the tumultuous first century of Islam’s history.
Iran fought an eight-year war with Iraq that killed nearly 1 million people on both sides, after former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded in the early 1980s.