Desperation in Libya as health crisis deepens

Copyright: Ivor Prickett / Panos

Speed read

  • The deteriorating security situation has led to the departure of medical workers
  • The Philippines last August repatriated 13,000 Filipinos, including 3,000 medics
  • With the collapse of health services, Libya desperately needs foreign medical aid

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

[CAIRO] A couple of years ago, Libyan youth expressed anger over the acceptance of a planeload of medical supplies from the United Arab Emirates as post-revolution conditions deteriorated in Libya.

The Libya Liberal Youth angrily lamented on its Facebook page: “After being the ones who used to send medical aid to countries across the world, this is the situation Libyans now find themselves in.”

Today, Libyan citizens can only hope to receive the aid previously criticised by the youth. During the second Libyan tribal leaders' forum, which was held in Cairo on 25-28 May with the aim of finding solutions to the Libyan crisis, the tribal heads called for medical assistance from Egyptian authorities.

Mohammed al-Shahoumi al-Idrissi, the leader of the Sheikh Zileeten Sons Tribe in Libya, tells SciDev.Net that they “made an agreement with the Egypt’s minister of health to facilitate the entry of a medical convoy to Libya in July”. He says the minister promised to secure this in cooperation with the Libyan army until it reaches Benghazi and the eastern province by land.

“Due to the targeting of airports in the internal conflict raging between the two governments in Libya, it has become difficult to secure medical supplies sent by air,” says al-Idrissi. “This has caused the health situation to deteriorate and led to complete reliance on neighbouring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.”

As with other Arab Spring countries, following the 17 February 2011 revolution, Libya experienced sharp division that reached its peak with the existence of two governments and two parliaments. The situation between the two sides escalated to armed conflict, with each side claiming to be the legitimate people’s representative.

"Where will the financial authorisations come from if there is no state,” asks Mohammed Abul Qasim, a physician at one of the hospitals in the eastern province.

To make matters even more complicated, armed groups such as ISIS appeared on the scene.

Abul Qasim says that the shortage of key medical staff is another offshoot of the crisis. “Before the revolution, Libya was suffering from a shortage of medical professionals and it tried to solve the problem by bringing in doctors from Arab countries,” he tells SciDev.Net.

He adds that the current conflict led to the departure of many doctors, especially after an Egyptian doctor and his wife were killed and their two daughters were kidnapped last December.

According to Abul Qasim, replacing these medical teams with local ones is impossible under the deteriorating security situation and after the complete destruction of the Al-Arab Medical University in Benghazi, which was specialising in preparing medical professionals.

Abul Qasim explains the problem is aggravated by a shortage of nursing teams after the Philippines decided last August to withdraw 13,000 Filipino citizens, including some 3,000 workers in the medical sector.

The decision came after unidentified gunmen beheaded a Filipino working in Benghazi and a Filipino nurse was kidnapped and raped by an armed group in Tripoli.

“Filipinos working in the health sector make up around 60 per cent of the medical and paramedical workforce in Libya,” says Abul Qasim.

To cope with the deteriorating situation, hospitals have been forced to apply strict rules in accepting patients who are now limited to critical cases. The children's department in Benghazi Medical Center was hit especially hard. According to gastroenterologist consultant Adel al-Tawati, his department no longer accommodates children and only treat emergency cases.

This has resulted in a growing desire to travel to neighbouring countries for treatment, creating a phenomenon known as the visa trade, where the cost of a travel visa has reached 10,000 Libyan dinars (US$7,300).

Faced with this dilemma, the Libyan Ministry of Health has had to resort to foreign support. Earlier this month, the health minister of the Interim Government of Libya, Rida al-Oakley, signed a cooperation agreement with the head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Libya.

In a press statement, the ministry’s official spokesman Ahmed al-Ulaiqi said that “the organisation will commence its work in the near future by providing medical personnel, as well as medical equipment and supplies.”

This article was originally produced in Arabic by SciDev.Net's Middle East & North Africa desk and translated by the South-East Asia & Pacific desk.