Libyans Caught between Fear of Pandemic and Scepticism
Haytham, tall and well-built, turns away customers without masks from a shop entrance in Libya's capital, telling them to return with a covering or buy one on the spot.
"We do our best, at the risk of being insulted by unhappy customers who don't understand this is all in their interests, not ours," the imposing security guard shrugged.
His job at a large supermarket in the west of Tripoli, one of the country's Covid-19 hotspots, is something of a thankless task.
The policy is set by management, which does not skimp on precautions -- free anti-bacterial gel, disinfectant-soaked mats and even a disinfection gate where incoming customers are sprayed with a cleanser.
It is impossible to gauge the full extent of the epidemic in Libya, a country mired in chaos since 2011 when an uprising backed by the West toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
But it is clear there has been a surge in cases in recent weeks, heaping further pressure on overburdened services.
More than 30,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Libya and over 470 deaths, among a population of less than seven million, according to official figures.
With hospital bed space scarce, in one way "we are lucky that around 80 percent of positive cases are asymptomatic, because all they have to do is self-isolate until their recovery is complete," said Ibrahim el-Deghayes, a member of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
But the instruction to self-isolate brings its own problems.
Without running water or electricity, it is impossible to convince many to stick to the rules, Deghayes said, lamenting the indifference of some Libyans towards the pandemic.
- Invisible enemy -
"The prioritisation of tests targets people at risk, like older people and those with chronic diseases," he said.
The NCDC's head of communications, Mohamad al-Jazoui, organises education campaigns in the capital, where its testing strategy also targets venues that are "most exposed, like grocery stores, cafes and bakeries".
These initiatives are judged insufficient by many Tripoli residents, who have to wait several days for test results, heightening the risk of infecting relatives.
Wearing a mask in public -- outside, as well as inside -- is compulsory in Libya's capital and transgressors risk hefty fines. But shop owners still struggle to enforce measures.
Mayssoun Trabelsi and her sisters live with their grandparents in the suburb of Tajoura, after fleeing heavy fighting in their home district of Ain Zara in the capital's southeast last December.
The fighting pitched troops loyal to a UN-recognised government against eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar, who in April 2019 launched an offensive against the capital, only to be repulsed earlier this year.
Trabelsi, who works in a clothes shop, fears for her grandparents, who are "old and fragile".
She describes herself as "terrorised" by the risk that she will infect them with coronavirus, due to close contact with customers who refuse to wear masks.
Clients "take offence" if she reminds them of their hygiene obligations.
- The sceptics -
Inside the shop, Motassem al-Mahmoudi waits while his wife finishes shopping. He thinks it "understandable" that people are "indifferent to this invisible enemy.
"It is difficult to force people to remain vigilant for months on end, especially in Libya where daily life is hard enough even without the virus," he said.
As the pandemic drags on, Libyans' reluctance to upend their daily routines has become increasingly entrenched, in part due to weariness, but also financial constraints.
Hygiene protection does not come cheap in Tripoli. The prices of masks, disposable gloves and disinfectant have all surged.
"A box of 100 masks has gone from five dinars to more than 55 dinars", said Mohamad Rayhan, a dentist, putting them beyond the grasp of many residents.
And then there are the steadfast sceptics, like Salem.
"We have survived bombing, rocket fire and wars -- a virus will not kill us!" he contended, sipping an expresso bought at a street corner cafe.
Sitting on the step of a mobile phone shop in Gargarech, he is proud of "never having worn a mask" since the start of the pandemic, dismissing coronavirus as a "global conspiracy".