Locusts and coronavirus: when two plagues collide

As Covid-19 weakens supply chains throughout Africa and South-West Asia, desert locusts are threatening the food supply

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“If Covid-19 was not a story right now, desert locusts would be the biggest story,” Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Programme, said last month.

In a large stretch of the planet that reaches from West Africa to India, the narratives from both are merging.

With rising numbers of coronavirus cases and waves of locust swarms, hundreds of millions of people living in the region are finding themselves facing two plagues at once.

One desert locust is 500,000 times the size of a single coronavirus particle. The former lives a gregarious life. The latter is barely considered to be alive at all. Biologically, they could hardly be more different.

But the two are governed by similar laws of nature: ideal conditions lead to rapid, unthinking multiplication.

The consequences for humans can be similarly devastating: formidable outbreaks, difficult to predict and control, that grind the wheels of civilisation to a halt.

In this photo taken Tuesday, March 31, 2020, a swarm of desert locusts flies in Kipsing, near Oldonyiro, in Isiolo county, Kenya. Weeks before the coronavirus spread through much of the world, parts of Africa were already threatened by another kind of plague, the biggest locust outbreak some countries had seen in 70 years, and now the second wave of the voracious insects, some 20 times the size of the first, is arriving. (Sven Torfinn/FAO via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

Part of what makes the combination of the two so daunting is that they both grow exponentially. Locusts increase their numbers twentyfold in the first three months of an outbreak, 400-fold in the next three and 8,000-fold in the three months after that.

With coronavirus, it took three months for the world to reach its first 100,000 cases, and a mere 12 days to reach the next 100,000.

Both also come in waves. As the world braces itself for the second waves of coronavirus, the next wave of the current locust outbreak is expected to arrive next month.

It is no wonder that we refer to locusts and viruses alike as plagues.

Whereas the coronavirus outbreak probably began in a wet market in China, the locust outbreak began in a wet desert in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Gulf, where heavy rainfall in May 2018 created ideal nesting grounds.

The remoteness of the nesting sites made surveying and controlling the insects difficult. In 2019, they had spread northwards to Iran and the Indo-Pakistan border and southwards into Yemen, where one generation bred undetected because of the difficulty of monitoring in the midst of the country’s civil war.

By the start of 2020, three generations had bred, resulting in 8,000 times the number that originally hatched in the Empty Quarter.

Since then, the Yemeni swarm has continued its path into the Horn of Africa and is now on the move westwards into the Sahel.


Simultaneously, coronavirus also evolved from a single outbreak in China into a global pandemic, reaching all 21 countries battling the locust plague.

Iran has been hit especially hard. It has upwards of 130,000 officially reported coronavirus cases. It has also not seen a locust outbreak like the current one in more than 50 years.

Coronavirus has shut borders in Iran, Pakistan, and all over East Africa and West Africa, too, regardless of the fact that the caseloads across these places vary widely.

Part of the reason is that even where reported case numbers are low, there is a sense that they are higher than the official numbers suggest. And if they are not, they soon will be.

In combating any plague, insect or viral, data collection is everything. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation are the two international agencies tasked with tackling locusts and coronavirus, respectively. And they are fighting similar battles: locating outbreaks, assessing their size, tracking the spread and measuring the impact.

One of the major issues in fighting coronavirus is how many carriers are “asymptomatic” and therefore untested, becoming hidden cases.

Dr Chibuzo Okonta, president of Medecins sans Frontieres in West Africa, explains that there is “no clear visibility on the epidemiological situation” of coronavirus across much of the continent.

Testing capacity is bare, he explains, though for the moment the mortality rate seems to be lower than other parts of the world.

“One can only hypothesise as to why,” Dr Okonta says. “But one thing is for sure: we need more transparency in the data.”

Cyril Ferrand, head of the FAO’s resilience team in East Africa, speaks of a similar data-gap issue in locust control.

“We can only control what we can see,” he says. “There are areas where the FAO doesn’t have access, and we don’t know how many locusts are there. So estimating the true numbers of the plague is impossible.”

But the wider impacts of both plagues, and the interplay between them, are obvious enough. As the locusts threaten the food supply, coronavirus threatens the supply chain.

Sightline with Tim Marshall: Locusts

Sightline with Tim Marshall: Locusts

There was already a food crisis in much of West Africa, East Africa, the Horn of Africa and South-West Asia, even before the locust and coronavirus plagues.

Four of the countries facing the locust plague – Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen – were among the 10 with the greatest food crises last year, a WFP report says.

Of the 21 countries on the FAO's desert locust list, 15 are among the WFP's list of 35 places with the most serious food crises in the world.

June is a major harvest period for farmers across the region to secure whatever food supply they can for the coming year, and the FAO also expects it to be the month when the next generation of locusts begins to swarm.

A typical swarm covering 100 square kilometres consumes in a single day enough crops to feed 3.5 million people. There are so many swarms right now that Mr Ferrand is reluctant to even guess the figure.

Residents queue according to social distancing rules as they wait for swab collection during a Covid-19 testing drive at Olympic Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. Halfway through Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s second term his pledge of transforming the economy through manufacturing, farming, health care and low-cost housing have been slow to show results, and the coronavirus pandemic could now reduce that to little more than an election promise. Photographer: Patrick Meinhardt/Bloomberg

Meanwhile, wage cuts and job losses are reducing many people’s purchasing power, and lockdowns and border closures are driving food prices up for everyone.

In Nigeria, one of the countries monitored by the FAO for locusts, the price of rice shot up 30 per cent at the end of March because of coronavirus-related supply chain disruptions.

In Yemen and Sudan, which heavily rely on imported food, local currency depreciation relative to the dollar will make these imports more expensive.

Coronavirus has also hampered FAO control operations on the ground. As with food, the supply chains for pesticides and bio-pesticides (a safer and more sustainable option for locust control) are severely disrupted.

The FAO office in East Africa was expected to receive a large pesticide consignment from India on March 17, but it has yet to arrive.

Bio-pesticides are also sourced from Morocco, but the shutdown of businesses in that country includes pesticide makers.

Curfews in Kenya limit the hours that FAO field staff can conduct control operations, and pilots coming into the country to run control operations have to enter a two-week quarantine.

The FAO, Mr Ferrand says, is working with governments in the region to loosen restrictions on the organisation’s staff in time for the June swarm.

So how do you overcome two plagues at once when the measures needed to confront both seem to be at odds with one another?

Locusts and virus particles are governed by similar laws of nature: ideal conditions lead to rapid, unthinking multiplication

In the end, the key will lie in the ability of governments, with the help of the international community and organisations like the FAO and WHO, to strike a careful balance between competing priorities.

That is not a conversation between policymakers that will be resolved in days. It will take months or years.

The most recent locust outbreak in West Africa in 2003 took two years to overcome and that was without coronavirus.

For now, directing resources to co-ordinated efforts on the ground is the most important thing.

The FAO has already raised $130 million (Dh477.4m) for its anti-locust operations between January and May. It has now raised its appeal to $311m, to include more operations in Iran, Pakistan and West Africa.

There is unease that aid budget cuts in rich countries dealing with economic recession will affect these fundraising efforts.

"We will see," Mr Ferrand says. If the money does not come, “then the signal will be pretty clear that we have exhausted all the resources we could mobilise".

In the meantime, FAO staff are continuing their work as they are able, undaunted.

A much more difficult task, however, is how we prevent a situation like this from recurring.

This week The National ran a piece by two professors from the National University of Singapore elaborating upon the links between rapid urbanisation, the encroachment of human civilisation on wildlife habitats and the rise of viral pandemics.

The desert locust outbreak, brought about by unusually heavy rains and a greater frequency of cyclones linked to climate change, bears a similar relationship to long-term human activity.

Rectifying all of that will require much more than good science and sound policymaking. It will require deep introspection and a fundamental rethink of how we live our lives.

Sulaiman Hakemy is deputy comment editor at The National