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What if COVID-19 had appeared in the United States last year, just as Hurricane Dorian forced people from their homes? How would you feel to be told to shelter in place as wildfires approach your door? It's hard to imagine handling more than one disaster of this magnitude, but before the new coronavirus hit the Horn of Africa, countries already had a plague on their hands.
Towards the end of last year, swarms of desert locusts began to flood the region in numbers that had not been seen in decades. The unusually humid weather over the past 18 months, probably related to climate change, created ideal conditions for the insects to reproduce. Since then, the swarms have multiplied in ten countries as the rain continues during what is usually the dry season, allowing each new wave of insects to breed. The plague is especially threatening in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia. Desert locusts are voracious eaters that travel in swarms the size of cities and will devastate crops, pastures and forests if left unchecked, posing a major threat to food security in countries where 20 million people are already food insecure.
Despite the alarming number of swarms, they have not yet drastically affected the food supply, according to Cyril Ferrand, leader of the East Africa Resilience Team for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). By the time the locusts arrived in full force at the end of December, the farmers had already secured their seasonal harvest.
"Our concern is next season," Ferrand said. Farmers are beginning to plant now for the June / July harvest, just as a new generation of lobsters begins to mature. "There could be losses of up to 100 percent," Ferrand said. "That is very clear."
To kill as many lobsters as possible, time is of the essence. That's why Ferrand raised the alarm two weeks ago when a pesticide shipment to Kenya was delayed due to coronavirus-related flight restrictions. When the Grist site spoke to him on Friday, he said stocks had been restocked and COVID-19 has not yet been a major impediment to controlling efforts.
In Kenya, where Ferrand is located, fewer than 200 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed so far. Social distancing measures are in place, and masks are mandatory in public places, but the country has declared that controlling lobsters is a national priority, so spraying and inspection have not been slowed down.
FAO began coordinating aid to affected countries in January and is trying to raise $ 153 million for control operations, as well as to safeguard livelihoods. $ 114 million has been raised so far. On the control side, the organization provides pesticides and spray equipment, including airplanes and trucks, as well as training to carry out surveillance and keep track of where swarms are moving.
"The locust infestation is happening over a very wide area, and you find that every time you try to control in one region, there is another swarm that is happening in a different region," said Ambrose Ngetich, an FAO project officer at a video produced by the organization. "It is not possible to control them simultaneously, because most of the time they are in different stages."
Lobsters bury their eggs 4 to 6 inches underground. Once they are laid, spraying cannot prevent a new generation from hatching.
Losses of crops and farmland are inevitable. That is why FAO also plans to provide cash to affected communities to buy food, compensate farmers so they can buy seeds for the next planting season, and supply food to ranchers whose pastures are devoured.
The COVID-19 pandemic has yet to stop the battle to stop the locusts, but if the outbreak worsens and countries begin to implement tighter lockdowns, it could halt control operations.
"We are talking about a region that is very fragile," Ferrand said. "After the health impact, the economic one could be extremely severe for a long period of time."