Left powerless and unable to get specialist care for his six-year-old daughter in Libya or a visa for treatment abroad, Abdulhakim Shaybi bought a motor boat and set off with her last month across the Mediterranean.
Two-and-a-half hours into their journey from Sabratha in western Libya, they reached a European ship deployed to rescue migrants, Reuters reported.
“I raised a white flag to the ship in a sign of peace,” Shaybi said from the Italian city of Genoa, where his daughter Sajida, who has the rare blood cell disease aplastic anemia, is now undergoing tests.
“My friend told them that we have a sick little girl.”
The story was quickly picked up on social media as an example of the tragic consequences of Libya’s health system collapsing amid poor security, a funding crisis, and chronic shortages of staff and medicine.
Shaybi said he decided on the boat trip after visiting Tripoli Central Hospital earlier this year and had found it “in a disastrous condition, one hundred times worse than before. There was no nursing staff at night, no medicine, and no health care at all.”
Afflicted by power and water cuts and starved of resources, the hospital is now in a forlorn state.
Three months ago the emergency room was shut after one male nurse was shot and another was beaten. The morgue has run out of space because staff are waiting for authorization to bury bodies unspoken for.
Of 250 foreign nurses, just 40 are left, and female Libyan nurses are afraid to work because of security threats.
“We are only conducting emergency operations now,” General Manager Mukhtar al-Habbas told Reuters.
“We have no anesthetic, sterilizing materials, or medical gauze, so how we can work?,” he added.
The situation is consistent throughout Libya. About half of the country’s 159 hospitals are either closed or barely delivering services, said Haroon Rashid, a World Health Organization official.
Rashid adds that indigenous malaria cases have recently resurfaced in the south, and it fears a re-emergence of polio as well as increasing resistance to HIV drugs due to users switching between different brands because of lack of supply.
Political turmoil, corruption, and financial pressure caused by a steep fall in oil earnings have cut off funding to health facilities, yet Libya’s underlying wealth means foreign donors are reluctant to give.
“Everyone is saying that Libya is a rich country, and they may have frozen assets but they have nothing in hand,” said Rashid.
At the Tripoli Medical Centre, the largest state hospital in the capital, metal donation boxes have been placed at the entrance and the walls of the pharmacy are bare.
Some equipment has been switched off by contractors who haven’t been paid, said General Manager Mohammed Ehnaish, and the remaining nursing staff threaten to leave over lack of salaries.