World fiddles while grasshoppers munch
NINGBO, China; NAIROBI, Kenya––A much deadlier plague than the COVID-19 coronavirus is sweeping westward from China through Pakistan, across Central Asia, and throughout the Horn of Africa, flying 100 miles a day, devouring crops enough to feed as many as 34 million people, according to the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization.
Unlike COVID-19, however, which appears to have emerged from bats, spread to humans through pangolins at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan circa November 2019, and was first identified in early January 2020, this plague is as old and as familiar as the Biblical Book of Exodus, chapter 10.
“Nothing green remained”
That chapter describes how Moses allegedly inflicted a plague of locusts so severe upon Egypt that “Nothing green remained on tree or plant in all the land.”
Locust plagues have been on the wing again for two years, stimulated by the combination of global warming with severe monsoons and other heavy rains falling at inopportune times, becoming abruptly worse during the winter of 2019-2020.
Ironically, global panic over COVID-19, an abbreviation describing the 19th identified coronavirus strain, has drawn attention and resources away from locusts, despite the increasingly desperate efforts of the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization and the governments of the many developing world nations that are afflicted to enlist outside help.
COVID-19: low fatality rate & inflated at that
COVID-19, as of the last days of February 2020, had made more than 82,000 people in 30 nations sick enough to obtain medical confirmation that they had the disease, and had killed about 3,000 of the known victims.
The fatality rate of 3.6%, however, was inflated by a fatality rate of nearly 20% in just one nation, Iran, which may have been abnormally high because few cases were diagnosed before the victims were already seriously ill.
Elsewhere, COVID-19 had a fatality rate below 2.5%––below 1% in some nations. By comparison, common influenzas severe enough to send victims to hospitals had a fatality rate of more than twice as high in the U.S. during the same months. Common pneumonia cases serious enough to require hospital care have a fatality rate in the U.S. of about 10%.
Millions exposed before COVID-19 was identified
COVID-19 appears to pass so easily from person to person that perhaps upward of 11 million people––the entire population of Wuhan––had probable exposure for two months before there were enough severe cases to prompt medical investigation of the cause, which in turn led to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, and eventually to the closure of live markets selling wildlife throughout China.
Very likely travelers from Wuhan and other visitors had already spread the COVID-19 coronavirus throughout the world even before it was scientifically identified. But the overwhelming majority of people exposed to COVID-19 have either not fallen ill or have not developed significant symptoms beyond those that might be confused with seasonal allergies or common colds.
Poorest, hungriest hit hardest
The overwhelming majority of people whose crops are ravaged by locusts already lived in some of the poorest, hungriest corners of the world, with the least resources to fall back upon.
Even as COVID-19 was first identified, United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization emergencies director Dominique Bourgeon warned media at a February 1, 2020 briefing in Rome, Italy, that Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda were already hard-hit by locusts, with little hope of a respite from nature.
“You can imagine that a country that has not seen such a thing in 70 years is not well prepared,” Bourgeon said of Kenya, by far the most affluent nation in East Africa, and thereby much better equipped to respond than less affluent and politically stable neighbors.
Locust swarms expected to grow up to 500 times bigger
“New rains in the weeks to come will fuel fresh vegetation and a new wave of breeding,” assessed Cara Anna for Associated Press, “The outbreak might not be under control until June when drier weather arrives, authorities have said. But by then the number of locusts, if left unchecked, could grow 500 times, experts have warned.
“A single swarm,” Cara Anna added, “can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometer of farmland, an area the size of almost 250 football fields. One especially large swarm in northeastern Kenya measured 60 kilometers long by 40 kilometers wide (37 miles long by 25 miles wide).”
Already as many as 20 million East Africans suffered food insecurity, a frequent precursor to violent conflict over land, water, and livestock.
“Uganda has deployed soldiers”
Reported freelance writer Rory Sullivan eleven days later, “Uganda has deployed soldiers to help combat one of the worst locust infestations in the region for decades, with the United Nations warning the international community about a possible catastrophe.”
Said Mark Lowcock, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, “In this region where there is so much suffering and so much vulnerability and fragility, we simply cannot afford another major shock. We need to act quickly.”
The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization appealed to member nations for $76 million in emergency aid for locust control, raising just $20 million over the next two months.
“Half of this figure comes from a United Nations emergency fund,” wrote Sullivan. “The U.S. and the European Union gave contributions of $800,000 and $1,091,295, respectively.”
Trump diverts $$ from fighting Ebola virus, with fatality rate of two-thirds
The Donald Trump administration by comparison asked Congress for $2.5 billion to combat COVID-19, including diverting $525 million in funds previously allocated to help stop an Ebola virus outbreak that has killed more than 2,250 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo since April 2019, with a fatality rate of 66%.
Updated Jon Sharman of The Independent on February 19, 2020, “A gigantic locust outbreak has now reached South Sudan. The infestation has already put food security and people’s livelihoods at risk in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. In addition, [United Nations] officials said ‘breeding is in progress along both sides of the Red Sea in Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea. Several immature swarms have moved from the coastal plains to the interior in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.'”
Added Sharman, “About half the South Sudanese population faces hunger after years of civil war. More than five million people are classed as severely food insecure and some 860,000 children are malnourished. While the nation is oil-rich, parts were plunged into famine in 2017 and one-quarter of the population were forced to flee their homes due to war.”
Erroneous rumor of Chinese duck deployment
None of the warnings, however, seem to have attracted a fraction as much attention as an erroneous February 27, 2020 report by Kate Ng of The Independent, picked up by Associated Press, alleging that, “China will send troops of ducks to Pakistan to help battle against a huge locust infestation that poses a threat to regional food security.
“At least 100,000 ducks will be deployed nearly 3,000 miles from the eastern province of Zhejiang to Pakistan, which shares a border with the Xinjiang province,” Ng continued, citing “Lu Lizhi, a researcher at the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Agricultural Technology, [who] told local newspaper the Ningbo Evening News that ducks proved to be an effective method of controlling locust infestations 20 years ago.
“In July 2000,” Ng summarized, “a 700,000-strong army of ducks and chickens were sent to Xinjiang to gain control over swarms of locusts that devoured over 3.8 million hectares of crops and grassland.”
The Ningbo Evening News report was also amplified––and then corrected––by the state-owned China Global Television Network.
Pakistan declares national emergency
“The locusts plaguing Pakistan have prompted prime minister Imran Khan to declare a national emergency to protect crops and farmers,” Ng reported accurately.
Elaborated Pakistan information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan, “We are facing the worst locust infestation in more than two decades.”
Updated the Reuters news service later on February 27, 2020, “The initial media report generated 520 million views on China’s popular social media platform Weibo.”
However, China Agriculture University professor Zhang Long told Reuters, as a member of the China Locust Disaster Control Task Force, that ducks would not thrive in drought-stricken Pakistan.
Instead, Reuters said, “Zhang advised the use of chemical or biological pesticides, and suggested using an aircraft to deploy the pesticides, according to the China Global Television Network.”
Chickens to the rescue
While massive applications of pesticides are anticipated in response to the locust plagues in Central Asia and Africa, there is some history of China successfully deploying poultry against locusts.
Recounted Mother Nature Network reporter Michael D’Estries in April 2018, “Officials in China’s northwest region of Xinjiang have handed out over 2,200 chickens to local herdsmen in the hopes of curbing what’s expected to be a bad year for locust swarms.”
Said Wushi Animal Husbandry & Veterinary Bureau official Yang Zhong, “Chickens are excellent natural predators of locusts. One chicken can catch over 600 locusts a day and can cover more than an acre of grassland.”
But the Wushi project only hoped to limit locust damage to about 10,000 acres, a year after 100 chickens reportedly held damage to 1,300 acres in another part of Wushi county.
“Mormon crickets” & grasshopper plagues
The U.S. has also had extensive experience with what were, at the time, called locust plagues, and struck to similar effect.
In 1848 a vast swarm of shield-backed katydids threatened to obliterate the second harvest from crops planted in the Salt Lake Valley by the first Mormon settlers. According to legend, the “locusts” were annihilated by the miraculous arrival of great flocks of gulls.
Shield-backed katydids, a frequent agricultural pest, have been commonly called “Mormon crickets” ever since.
Grasshopper plagues involving close relatives of Old World locusts often destroyed crops in the Midwest during the late 19th century and early 20th century, hitting especially hard from 1873 to 1877 in Minnesota; in 1874 in Kansas; and in 1931 in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota.
The combination of pesticide use and improvement in tillage methods is credited with preventing grasshopper plagues in the U.S. since then.