UN urges Libya to focus on coronavirus after first death

UN sounds warning that health services in Libya are already fragile without the increased pressure from continued conflict, stresses need to focus on tackling the coronavirus crisis.

TRIPOLI - The United Nations warned Friday that health services in conflict-plagued Libya were already fragile as the North African country recorded its first death from the novel coronavirus.

That warning came as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres Friday renewed his call for a global ceasefire, urging all parties to conflict to lay down arms and allow war-torn nations to focus on combating the coronavirus pandemic.

Health authorities in Libya said an 85-year-old woman was confirmed to have had COVID-19 on examination after her death, without giving further details.

The UN-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which controls the west of the country, has officially recorded 10 cases of the virus in Libya.

No cases have been declared in the south and east, which are largely under the control of a rival administration supported by General Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army (LNA).

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned Friday that the health system in Libya, the scene of a year of fighting for control of Tripoli, was already on the verge of collapse.

"The ongoing conflict has severely impacted the country's health system and medical services, which have limited financial resources and face shortages of basic equipment and medicines," UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said.

He told a press briefing in Geneva that several hospitals near fighting zones south of the capital had been damaged or closed.

Baloch called for the release of hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees held by Libyan authorities in detention centres.

They are "particularly vulnerable and exposed, given often poor sanitation facilities, limited health services and overcrowded conditions", the UNHCR spokesman said.

Libya has been gripped by chaos since longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi was brought down and killed in a 2011 uprising backed by NATO. Its rival administrations have launched preventive measures against COVID-19, including night-time curfews and the closure of restaurants, cafes and non-essential services.

Meanwhile the UN chief warned "the worst is yet to come," out of the coronavirus crisis for countries beset with fighting like Libya, Syria and Yemen.

"The COVID-19 storm is now coming to all these theatres of conflict," Antonio Guterres said.

Guterres said there had been some progress following his March 23 call for a global ceasefire, but that fighting still rages in a number of countries, hampering officials' ability to put into place plans to combat the virus.

"The need is urgent," Guterres said at a UN press conference. "The virus has shown how swiftly it can move across borders, devastate countries and upend lives."

He said that parties to conflict in a number of countries, including Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, have expressed support for his call.

"But there is a huge distance between declarations and deeds - between translating words into peace on the ground and in the lives of people," Guterres said. "In many of the most critical situations, we have seen no let-up in fighting - and some conflicts have even intensified."

While expressing gratitude for support of his earlier call from some 70 countries, NGO groups and religious leaders worldwide including Pope Francis, Guterres said more concrete work was necessary.

"We need robust diplomatic efforts to meet these challenges. To silence the guns, we must raise the voices for peace," he said.