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Unprecedented: East Africa Takes on a Plague and a Pandemic

100x smaller than a red blood cell, the coronavirus has been recorded in just about every African country. As the microscopic parasite passes from person to person, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, a different plague rages through the food supply of millions of people across East Africa and the Middle East.

It looks like billions of hand-sized bullets are being fired through a field of crops. A thick, ravenous wildfire that roars with sound but does not burn. You could walk through it, even as

it destroyed enough food to feed 35 000 people.

“Once they land in your garden they do total destruction. Some people will even tell you that the locusts are more destructive than the coronavirus. There are even some who don’t believe that the virus will reach here.”

That is Yoweri Aboket, a farmer in Uganda. Yoweri is one of thousands of farmers from Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia who have watched swarms of locusts the size of cities descend on their fields this year, threatening East Africa’s food security as it struggles to contain rising cases of the coronavirus.

Where did the locusts come from?

During the last half of 2018 a remote part of the Arabian Peninsula experienced some truly extraordinary weather.

A cyclone from the Indian Ocean drenched The Empty Quarter, a huge sandy stretch of desert between Qatar and Yemen. A group of desert locusts laid their eggs somewhere in this area, which had suddenly become an ideal breeding ground for them.

Then, remarkably, a second cyclone hit the exact same area. For 9 months this uninhabited, largely unmonitored area became the perfect environment for breeding generations of locusts.

Out of these perfect conditions a massive second generation of locusts emerged, and then a third. Locusts reproduce exponentially, and this third generation, now 8 000 times larger than the first, was able to leapfrog over the Red Sea into East Africa.

It landed in Somalia where above-average levels of vegetation and, incredibly, a third cyclone propelled the group into astoundingly large numbers, with swarms stretching up to 50km long and 30km wide.

Desert locusts live for about three months. They spend two weeks as eggs and then hatch as wingless baby locusts called nymphs. These nymphs grow to the size of a pinky finger before developing wings and, thanks to a new diet of toxic plants, turn bright yellow and black. They soon take flight together, billions of individuals migrating over 100km a day in giant buzzing swarms.

This city-sized group of locusts then migrated into Kenya, destroying at least 30% of the

pastureland they came into contact with. Soon infestations were being reporting by farmers in Djibouti and Eritrea, Yoweri’s village in Uganda and now even the DRC.

Today, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has secured $110m of the $153m it needs to support local government-led efforts to stop the locusts before they migrate again.

How is this situation complicated by the coronavirus?

Without the capacity to treat thousands of coronavirus cases, East Africa is depending on being able to prevent the spread of the virus. Most countries in East Africa have closed their borders, reduced cargo flights and restricted public movement, hoping to ensure the number of infected doesn’t exceed the capacity of their healthcare systems.

But what does this mean for governments and farmers fighting to preserve East Africa’s food supply?

Governments face a nightmare situation. Their best coronavirus prevention measures restrict the movement of critical pesticides and specialists and make preventing another locust migration all the more difficult.

Cyril Ferrand, FAO’s resilience team leader for East Africa, says that coronavirus-linked flight restrictions have delayed deliveries of pesticides and at current usage rates stocks in Kenya will run out within four days.

For individual farmers like Yoweri, curfews, lockdowns and other restrictions bar them from gathering to drive away locusts infesting their farms, support other farmers or travel to acquire pesticides.

What is being done?

Neither locusts nor viruses respect national borders, and it is critical for East Africa and its people that pesticides, personnel and other critical goods and services are similarly mobile.

But as governments work with the UN to move pesticides and specialists around the continent, they risk exposing more and more people to the coronavirus. This endangers East Africans who will prioritise protecting their food supply from certain destruction over protecting themselves from potential infection.

“Our absolute priority is to prevent a breakdown in pesticide stocks in each country. That would be dramatic for rural populations whose livelihoods and food security depend on the success of our control campaign,” said Ferrand.

This would mean ensuring humanitarian corridors through multiple countries in different states of lockdown. These carefully controlled openings would allow cargo, aid and emergency flights to move as required through the continent, while protecting against the spread of the coronavirus.

This is already happening in Tanzania, which despite the coronavirus is keeping its borders open to allow critical supplies to reach its neighbors. The rest of the world should take note.

Rising sea surface temperatures were ultimately responsible for the three cyclones that fostered this locust epidemic. Our warming oceans were also largely responsible for the devastating Australian bush fires as well as Cyclone Idai, which created a humanitarian crisis in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi last year.

By coordinating sophisticated solutions to novel and nightmarish logistical problems, East Africa is learning lessons and developing resiliencies that will be invaluable in crises to come.

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