Despite advice from health authorities to shun public gatherings, Moayed al-Missaoui and friends watched an Italian Serie A football match in a buzzing cafe in the Libyan capital Tripoli.
While the novel coronavirus has affected more than 100 countries since December, many in Libya believe their war-torn country’s isolation may lessen the threat.
For the television spectators, turmoil since a 2011 revolution that turned Libya into a no-go zone has finally come up with a positive side.
The constant closures of Tripoli’s only functioning airport and limited links with the outside world have so far buffered the North African country from COVID-19, unlike many of its neighbours.
“We’re sheltered from the virus in Libya, whose capital is under siege and where land and air links are closed,” said Moayed, a university student.
He said his country “has nothing to fear” from the virus, even as the number of cases across 105 countries and territories on Tuesday stood at over 114,000 with more than 4,000 deaths.
The fans were glued to the television as it beamed back pictures of an empty stadium, silent apart from the referee’s whistles and the shouts of coaches, in sharp contrast to the boisterousness inside the cafe.
Italy has now suspended all sporting events until April 3, including the Serie A league, whose matches had already gone behind closed doors as the country under lockdown grapples with the COVID-19 crisis.
“Our Italian neighbours are denied the pleasure of going to watch matches in stadiums and even cafes and other public places, something that gives us real pleasure,” Moayed said with a broad smile.
Diya Abdel Karim, a fellow Italian football enthusiast, said it was “sensible” to take a more laid-back approach in Libya for the time being.
“It’s better not to stir fear and panic among people so the authorities can apply preventive sanitary measures without pressures,” said Diya, a dentist.
“But we have to remain vigilant.”
Some less sanguine
According to Libyan authorities, so far not a single case of COVID-19 has been recorded in the country, which faces Italy across the Mediterranean.
Libya’s centre for disease control, the Tripoli-based CNLM, said it has readied measures to be adopted if the virus infiltrates the country.
“The virus has circled Libya from all sides. Our neighbours have confirmed cases so we must monitor the cross-border threat,” CNLM president Badreddine al-Najjar told AFP.
Although immediate neighbours such as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria have announced cases, “we can’t yet speak of a pandemic”, he said.
Chronic insecurity in Libya led to the closure in 2014 of most Western embassies and travel advice for their nationals to steer clear of the country.
But despite being relatively cut off, said Najjar, Libyan health workers aim to have isolation and quarantine stations up and running next week.
Some Libyans have been less sanguine about the new threat in a country where nine years of warfare have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced 150,000 people.
Stocks of sanitary products such as hand wipes, masks and gloves have been running short in Libyan pharmacies, said Mounir el-Hazel, who heads a medical imports firm.
“Tradesmen, pharmacists and individuals… are gearing up for shortages,” he said, adding that profiteers have been gouging prices.