by Sukaina Ehdeed
The spread of the novel coronavirus has brought numbers, statistics and graphs to the forefront of our daily lives. In this rapidly evolving situation, there is huge demand for dynamically updated data about COVID-19. To tackle a virus spreading this quickly, we need up-to-date information. Organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO), Worldometer, EU Open Data Portal and others provide daily status reports detailing new cases and totals in response to this demand. Data is vital for day-to-day government decision-making in many aspects such as extending or relaxing lockdowns and curfews. In the UK, for example, the government’s decision to extend the country’s lockdown was a result of data analysis. In fact, the government stated that of five criteria for lifting the lockdown, one of them is reliable data showing the infection rate is falling to manageable levels. But, what happens in war-affected countries whose health data systems are in chaos? How can critical decisions be made without enough data?
If stable countries are struggling to cope with the COVID-19 crisis, the outbreak could be catastrophic for those countries that are already ravaged by war and currently caught between bombs, shells and the novel coronavirus. The Libyan conflict, for example, escalated as the first case of COVID-19 was reported despite a UN call for a ‘global ceasefire’. In Libya, the war has already crippled healthcare services leaving the country highly vulnerable and fragile in its fight against COVID-19. There is a public fear that this fragility could lead to a dramatic sweep of the deadly virus through the population.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, there has been only a small number of tests carried out. According to the Libyan National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), by 29 April a total of 1802 tests have been performed, confirming 61 cases and two deaths. There is a severe lack of national testing capacity. Only two testing laboratories in Tripoli and Benghazi are capable of testing for COVID-19, while there are no such laboratories in the south, creating significant challenges in identifying the actual number of cases in the country. With missing data, it is extremely difficult to understand the spread of the virus. It is also very hard to make predictions about what is coming and how a coronavirus crisis might unfold.
Amidst these challenges, the country’s two rival governments, the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA), have taken some modest steps and decisions including implementing curfews and other restrictive measures (including border closures, flight restrictions, closures of schools and mosques, and so forth). However, these restrictions are not enough to fight and eliminate the spread of COVID-19. The country’s ongoing civil war continues to impact civilians. Due to the deteriorating situation, thousands of people have been internally displaced to safer areas, yet often lack water, sanitation, hygiene and health assistance. The healthcare system is also impacted. While health workers in many parts of the world are being applauded for their efforts in combatting the virus, others become the targets of attack. Al-Khadra Hospital south of Tripoli, which is dedicated to treating people infected with coronavirus, was targeted multiple times by the militia loyal to LNA in recent days. Patients, including a COVID-19 case, had to be evacuated.
The ongoing clashes have also led to constant changes of information regarding which hospitals and isolation sites have been allocated to the treatment of cases of COVID-19, causing further panic and confusion over the readiness of the country to fight the virus. With effectively two health ministries, there is no reliable data provided in terms of capacity and equipment needed. No data is available about the availability of ICU beds, ventilators, personal protective equipment, lab diagnostic kits and supplies. Since COVID-19 was first detected in the country on 25 March 2020, cases have been on the rise. However, there is currently no data publicly available on the NCDC Libya’s Facebook official page in terms of regional breakdown of registered cases, in part because confirmed cases in some towns or regions have led to regional conflict and triggered stigmatisation and violence (though the NCDC provides these details on their official website). The NCDC Libya stopped making reference to any of the people, places or cities associated with the virus on Facebook, the country’s most popular news source. The goal was to avoid creating further hate, contention and stigma in the country. However, while it is important to keep personal data confidential, the lack of detail in anonymised aggregate form could in turn lead to spread of rumours and misinformation, thus causing further public panic and fear.
The dearth of data is not only an issue for Libyan citizens, but also for other vulnerable communities of refugees and migrants in the country. Libya has been one of the major gateways to Europe across the Mediterranean, particularly for people from sub-Saharan Africa. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), there are currently more than 600,000 refugees and migrants in Libya. Thousands are being held in official detention centres, and no reliable data is available on those in militia-run detention centres. Protective measures like social distancing and lockdowns are impossible in these crammed places where there is little, if any, access to hygiene services, putting many lives at risk of death.
After almost a decade of conflict, the risk from COVID-19 spreading in Libya is significant. While there are many challenges in creating and using data to inform Libya’s response to COVID-19, collective action to tackle this issue is required – bringing together Libyan health professionals and authorities with the international community to address the dearth of data and better equip Libya to defeat the virus.