As the world braces for COVID-19 and social distancing persists, many countries have turned their focus inwards, attempting to salvage their economies and minimize casualties. However, this has had the unintended consequence of leaving many ill-equipped, developing countries to fend for themselves, and with huge swarms of locusts ravaging East Africa, they can use all the help they can get.
Three months ago, CNN reported that East Africa was suffering its worst locust invasion in the last quarter-century. In some countries, however, it was the worst they had seen in over 70 years. This is a region where nearly 20 million people were already experiencing a high level of food insecurity and the locust swarms have exacerbated the issue. A typical swarm consists of around 4-8 billion locusts and covers 100 square kilometers. It can travel up to 150 kilometers a day, destroying all crops in its path and jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions.
This outbreak is following one of the wettest seasons in over 40 years, with rainfall up to 400% the normal amount in certain regions. This is partly tied to climate change, as warmer oceans provide the perfect environment for cyclones. One such storm swept across Ethiopia and Somalia last December, creating an ideal breeding ground for these insects. The only way to stop these swarms is through early detection, but many of these countries simply do not have the resources to do so. Not to mention, a civil war in nearby Yemen, another locust breeding ground, has preoccupied and divided the nation, rendering previous, state-run detection programs ineffective.
As of February, these locusts were threatening food security for 13 million people, and the issue has gotten even worse. This infestation has worked in tandem with the coronavirus to create a bleak situation for much of East Africa and even parts of the Middle East: the entire region is on the verge of a major food crisis.
In certain countries, these swarms are regarded as even more dangerous than the coronavirus. For example, Ethiopia which, granted, lacks an ample amount of testing, has only 108 confirmed cases in the entire country. Nevertheless, a wide variety of containment and prevention measures have been implemented to stop the spread of the virus. This is crucial because if East Africa does see an influx of cases, it’s likely their weak medical systems will be quickly overwhelmed.
While preventative measures are necessary to curb the spread of the virus, like in many other countries, this comes at the expense of the economy. East Africa has developed rapidly in recent years, seeing economic growth close to 7 percent in 2019. Yet agriculture remains a key industry for much of the region. With this industry already struggling due to the locust swarms, further economic restrictions could potentially be catastrophic for East Africa.
The coronavirus has also impeded attempts to combat the locust swarms. According to the Organization for World Peace, the main strategy to deal with these locusts is through the use of pesticides. This method is already tedious as it is–the chemicals must make direct contact with the insects and high heat or strong winds can render it ineffective. The chemicals also pose a health risk to other living creatures, so they must be sprayed far from livestock and population centers. The main producer of these pesticides is Japan, but due to production limitations, orders have been delayed. Moreover, protective equipment, which is required for those spraying the pesticide, has been prioritized for healthcare workers, so they’re in short supply.
Currently, East Africa is bracing for the second wave of locusts, which in and of itself could be up to 20 times worse than the first. Billions of locusts have already destroyed 500,000 acres of Ethiopian cropland, resulting in a large food crisis as 1 million Ethiopians require emergency food assistance. Another swarm in Kenya was found to occupy over 2400 square kilometers. To put it into perspective, that’s almost twice the size of Los Angeles. It’s difficult to say how many locusts there are in total, but the number is in the hundreds of billions and is growing each day as the swarms continue to devastate lives.
In January, the United Nations estimated that $76 million in aid was needed to combat the swarms. However, this figure has now risen to $138 million and will continue to grow if action is not taken. So far, only $52 million has been received and this is far from sufficient. Without the proper prevention, and with rainy forecasts ahead, the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization estimates that the number of locusts could grow up to 500 times larger by June.
Together, the coronavirus and locust swarms have handed East Africa a devastating blow. While it’s easy to turn a blind eye and focus on our own problems during this chaotic time, this crisis in East Africa is something we cannot ignore, because, without our help, it’s unlikely they can endure on their own.