Recent media reports have portrayed Libyans enjoying daily activities such as watching football in cafes, which was in sharp contrast to the current lockdown situation across the Mediterranean in Italy. Because Libya has so few functioning airports and no tourism, this has somewhat mitigated the importation of the virus until now. It has, however, been registered in neighbouring countries, and many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa and beyond cross its porous borders. So far there are no confirmed cases of COVID-2019 in Libya but a single infected person who enters the country could constitute a catastrophe because its institutions lack the capacity to test and treat citizens or effectively prevent a spread of the virus.
Tunisia — which has now recorded 26 cases and where many Libyans go for healthcare and other services — imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine on all visitors in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. It also closed its maritime borders and suspended all flights from Italy and reduced other flights to a bare minimum. There will be one daily flight to France, and a weekly flight to Egypt, Germany and the UK. It is still unclear whether flights will be allowed to and from Libya. Without access to Tunisian clinics and hospitals, a critical safety valve for Libyan healthcare could be lost.
Meanwhile, Libya’s health institutions are warning of an outbreak. The country’s National Centre for Disease Control said on 10 March that the coronavirus has started to pose a direct threat to the country, and warned of its imminent outbreak in Libya because it has been registered in neighbouring countries. It called on the concerned authorities to form emergency committees to help Libyans prepare for confronting the virus if it broke out and that it will take all necessary measures to provide the necessary support to the authorities to coordinate efforts against an outbreak. The centre also called for the provision of medical staff with the necessary equipment and preventive materials, as well as supplying rapid response teams with equipment and an emergency budget.
Two days later, however, the centre’s director, Badereldine al-Najar, admitted that Libya is not in a position to confront the virus if it arrives. It lacks adequate isolation, quarantine and treatment facilities because of a lack of money. On 14 March, in order to pre-empt such challenges, the GNA announced that all border crossings, sea and airports would be closed from 16 March. In a televised address, Prime Minister Serraj also said that his government had earmarked US$360.54 million to combat the disease for when it inevitably reached Libya.