As the North African country of Libya heads into another day of extensive electricity outages, living conditions worsen and this time it’s not only because of the conflict. Covid-19 is also taking a large bite out of what’s left of Libya.
At this time of the year, blackouts are as intolerable as ever. In one day, an average power cut can take up to 20 hours, taking away every ounce of stability left from a Libyan person’s life.
In a 2020 research report called “Tripoli’s electricity crisis and its politicisation”, it describes how prolonged daily power cuts have had an impact on different aspects of everyday life.
According to this research, “This results in drastically reduced productivity and revenue, the death of new-born babies in hospital incubators, the spread of respiratory difficulties attributable to ubiquitous power generator smoke, and the undermining of morale among the capital’s citizens,”.
Noise pollution accelerates as power generators are kept on for most of the day; making up for long hours without electricity to power the simplest of everyday needs. With generators being used so frequently. another issue arises — the diesel fuel that powers these generators became immensely scarce.
With no electricity, there is also no mobile phone signal or mobile data either. Libyans are almost completely cut off from the rest of the world and with Covid-19 cases on the rise, they are cut off from each other too.
“If you don’t have money, life is miserable and if you do have money, life is miserable,” said Libya Herald Editor-in-Chief Sami Zaptia. “They spend all day either queuing up for cooking gas, looking for diesel or lining up outside the bank to get a hold of some cash,” he added. “You’re living just to stand still, not to progress. It’s an encompassing depression,” he said.
These daily queues for life’s simplest essentials make it even more difficult to social distance, exposing many to the virus. A 39-year-old doctor illustrates the horror of coping with a pandemic in a country that barely has any health facilities left since war broke out.
“My whole family tested positive for Covid-19 and when we needed to seek more medical help, the hospitals were at full capacity; patients were scattered outside the hospital in hope of a free spot,” said the doctor.
Libyans are constantly living in fear — whether it be fear of violence or fear of becoming ill and not being able to do anything about it.
“I had a friend who had tested positive for Covid-19 and because of the full capacity of hospitals you’re forced to stay at home or forced to drive from one private clinic to another,” said Zaptia. “Libya is not the place you’d want to be ill; it was never the place to be ill,” he added.
Due to the below average healthcare system, many Libyans would always seek medical help outside Libya. In some situations, those who could not afford it would sell their properties and personal belongings to get treated in neighbouring countries, Tunisia or Egypt.
The pandemic, however, is not only a healthcare crisis; it also has a huge impact on the country economically and socially.
“The pandemic is already compounding Libya’s tenuous economic situation with increased prices for food and goods. With people losing their income and unable to access food or pay their rent, continued food assistance will be crucial as needs are already on the rise,” said UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Public Information Officer Jennifer Bose Ratka.
“The Covid-19 pandemic and emergency measures, including curfews and movement restrictions, are also impacting displaced people’s livelihoods, their ability to find safe shelter and their access to basic services,” said Ratka. This added to already existing issues of gender-based violence and sexual assault as more people are forced to stay at home.
“I’ve had objects thrown at me; I’ve been pushed around and there was nothing I can do about it. I couldn’t even go outside because of the lockdown,” said a domestic violence victim who chose to stay anonymous.
Women are amongst the most vulnerable in Libya. Just a few weeks back a middle-aged woman was abducted whilst driving her car. She was later found murdered. Stories like this have become common in the unstable country.
“Ongoing conflict and Covid-19 are a deadly combination, compounding human suffering and bringing Libya to the brink of collapse,” said Ratka.
Ratka lived in Libya for around two months for her job. One devastating story she remembers is when she recently met Omar, a father of seven and a migrant who came to Libya 15 years ago from Morocco to support his family. He was mine survivor recovering at Tripoli Hospital.
“He (Omar) rebuilds houses that are damaged by the conflict and lost his left leg when he stepped on a mine in one of the houses he visited for work,” said Ratka. “It broke my heart to see how this incident shattered his whole life. He does not know how to care for his children anymore, if he will ever be able to work again or even how to afford his medical bills. This is just one of the many examples of people in Libya having to bear the brunt of the conflict,” she added.
According to Ratka, around one million people in Libya are in need of humanitarian assistance. But due to ongoing clashes, and restrictions on movement, it is difficult to get humanitarian aid to those who need assistance.
“The situation for refugees and migrants in detention centres is particularly concerning as the dire and congested conditions, with limited access to sanitation, pose particular risks when it comes to infectious diseases,” said Ratka.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.