A war in the context of a pandemic. The Coronavirus could be a disaster for Libya, Syria and Yemen

The parties to the conflicts cannot do without a temporary truce.

While some countries are quarantining and cancelling mass activities because of the epidemic, others are still fighting.

The spread of COVID-19 has become yet another challenge for regions already suffering from ongoing conflicts. But even under such conditions, local authorities are trying to take measures to contain the disease. We tell how war-stricken Libya, Syria and Yemen live in a pandemic.

Libya is taking action.

The virus situation in Libya looks suspiciously calm. So far, there have been no cases of COVID-19 infection. Despite this, the authorities are taking strict measures to prevent a possible spread of the infection. And efforts are being made by both parties to the conflict: the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNC) of Faiz Saraj in Tripoli and his opponents – the temporary cabinet of Abdullah Abdurrahman al-Thani, acting in the east of the country and supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA) Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

The state of emergency was declared throughout the country as early as 14 March. Speaking on national television, Saraj reported that his cabinet has allocated 500 million Libyan dinars ($360.54 million) to fight the coronavirus. In addition, since March 16 the country has closed all land, air and sea borders for three weeks. Libya has no educational institutions, all cultural and sporting events have been cancelled, halls for weddings and celebrations have been closed and prayers have been cancelled in mosques.

Meanwhile, the Government in eastern Libya has introduced its own plan to mitigate the impact of the virus. It also includes closing borders and establishing its own laboratory to detect the virus. That will save time and avoid sending test samples to Tripoli.

In addition, the Interior Minister of the interim Government, Ibrahim Bushnaf, has ordered a 12-hour curfew from Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The exception applies to ambulances and transport of supervisory authorities. Both Libyan “governments” had previously stated that the tests of seven patients from different parts of the country who were suspected of having coronavirus were negative.

The situation is complicated by the actual state of war in which the conflicting parties are. In addition, there are foreign mercenaries operating in the country, who may well become vectors of infection. Another danger is posed by the approximately 50,000 refugees and migrants who hope to cross the Mediterranean Sea and enter Europe.

Earlier UN head Antonio Guterres called on the NTC and LNA forces to observe a truce, the failure of which threatens to fight for Tripoli.

“Given the already dire humanitarian situation in Libya and the possible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary-General calls on the parties to join efforts to eliminate the threat and ensure unhindered access for humanitarian aid throughout the country”, –  the UN head said in a statement.

First case in Syria

The first case of infection in Syria only officially became known on 22 March. For a long time the authorities of the country reported that there were no patients in the republic. Meanwhile, in neighboring Iran, the number of deaths exceeded 1.5 thousand. In Pakistan, at least eight cases of infection were associated with patients coming from the Arab Republic.

It is difficult to assess the situation in some regions of the country. For example, in the uncontrolled province of Idlib, where active fighting continued from December to March. The situation looks most dangerous in camps for internally displaced persons. It is not always possible for refugees to maintain a banal hygiene, let alone qualified medical care.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is developing a response plan for Idlib territory. It includes the screening of people at border crossings, the distribution of protective equipment and the training of health workers. Three hospitals in north-western Syria will be equipped with lung ventilation devices, while others will be set up to care for potential coronavirus patients. WHO points to the high risk of a worsening epidemiological situation in the region. According to the organization, only 50% of public Syrian hospitals are fully operational because of the nine years of civil war.

As for official Damascus, the authorities are actively taking preventive measures. Parliamentary elections in Syria scheduled for 13 April have been postponed until May. In addition, since 14 March, the Government has cancelled classes in schools, technical schools and universities and reduced the working hours of State institutions. Restaurants, gyms and other crowded places remain closed. Syrian Ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad said that the republic’s health care system is on high alert but is experiencing problems due to international economic sanctions.

Yemen is at a castle

The situation in Yemen, where more than 100 thousand people died in five years of civil war, has repeatedly been called the largest humanitarian crisis of our time. The massive bombing of the Saudi coalition, the food crisis and the cholera epidemic have turned the country into an exclusion zone.

Attacks on hospitals and other infrastructure made the Yemeni health system incapable of preventing even ordinary diseases. According to the UN, only 51% of Libyan medical centers “remain fully functional”. WHO has identified only two facilities in the entire 29 million country where coronavirus quarantine and diagnosis can be arranged. And that is subject to the availability of electricity, which is also a big problem in Yemen.

Even before the war the country was heavily dependent on foreign medical workers, but since the beginning of hostilities most of them have gone abroad. In addition, Yemen is under a naval blockade, which affects access to humanitarian aid, medicine and medical equipment.

As in the case of Libya, official authorities have not yet recorded a single case of COVID-19 infection. They attribute that to the fact that the country is already virtually locked up because of the long war and blockade. The only exceptions are UN flights. However, both government forces and opposing Husite insurgents have started taking measures to slow down the possible spread of the virus. The internationally recognized Yemeni government has cancelled all flights out of the country for two weeks and ordered schools to be closed for one week. All incoming travellers have been quarantined.

In Hussite-controlled provinces, where most of the population lives, militia have cancelled UN flights from and to Sana’a, as well as closed schools and sent 80 percent of civil servants to do their homework.

“At a time when the world is struggling with a pandemic, the parties to the conflict must stop fighting each other and make sure the civilian population doesn’t face more disasters than they already have”, –  said UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths.

Hopes for a truce

The situation remains difficult not only in Syria, Libya and Yemen, but also in other States with unresolved conflicts. For example, in Afghanistan, where the first coronavirus death was confirmed and a total of 40 people were infected. Or in Palestine, where local authorities recorded the first two cases of infection.

The refusal of the warring parties to declare a truce for at least a few months threatens to become a real disaster for these countries. Anyone can get infected regardless of military advantage or political success. In addition, hostilities during the epidemic can completely freeze all foreign aid. Without it, the warring camps will be left face to face with the epidemic and will hardly be able to overcome it with small casualties. UN diplomats insist that their efforts to monitor regional crises and conflicts will continue.

“We intend to do everything we can to ensure that the Council plays a central role in maintaining global peace and security”, – British Ambassador to the UN Jonathan Allen wrote on Twitter.

“COVID-19 is a global challenge for all, but we have not forgotten Syria, Libya, Yemen”, –  he said.

However, so far the meetings of the international organization have been cancelled, and the UN countries are no longer busy with international issues, but with solving local crises related to the pandemic.

Dmitry Belyaev


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