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The pandemic threatens the people of East Africa — and now locusts threaten their food

As COVID-19 threatens the people of East Africa, locusts threaten their livestock and their food. The region suffered an initial swarm of the destructive insects in February but is now ravaged by a second wave 20 times larger. Pesticides can help, but pandemic border closures complicate delivery. And the populations directly affected are already vulnerable and food insecure. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It sounds biblical, but as the world grapples with the COVID pandemic, the continent of Africa is facing another plague: locusts.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, the small insects pose a serious threat to food security throughout the region.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In East Africa, the air carries two plagues, locusts, swarms with as many as 50 billion insects. As COVID-19 threatens the people, locusts threaten livestock and their food.

  • Samuel Lentorol (through translator):

    They are being a menace, eating our grass and even getting into our homes. When we slaughter our livestock, we find locust faces in their stomachs. Without a doubt, they are affecting our health, our animals' health, and the environment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In February, eight East African countries experienced an initial swarm, the largest for parts of the region in 70 years. And now a new wave is 20 times larger that the first wave.

  • Keith Cressman:

    There are swarms that are — it's not uncommon to be, let's say, the size of Manhattan in New York City.

    So, they can be very big. In one day, that swarm can eat the same amount of food as everybody in New York and California combined.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Keith Cressman is the Food and Agriculture Organization's senior locust forecasting officer. He says, in a region that already struggling with food security, more than 33 million people are now food-insecure and require assistance.

  • Keith Cressman:

    Because this region is very, very vulnerable. For the past three years, they have faced droughts. This year, they have faced heavy rains and floods. So, already, you know, they're living in a very precarious situation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Pesticides can fight the locusts. And the FAO is appealing for millions of dollars of aid to deliver more.

    But border closures because of COVID-19 can slow down deliveries. And locals gathering to combat the locusts, often without success, can spread coronavirus.

    The U.N. is instead pushing for the use of biopesticides and remote data collection, and is working with governments to ensure the people who are fighting the locusts can travel, despite travel restrictions.

  • Keith Cressman:

    The governments realize, you know, not only COVID-19 is serious, but also locust is serious.

    So they have given waivers to all of those involved in the locust campaign, and they're considered as essential services.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The outbreak originated in the Arabian Peninsula, where heavy rains in 2018 and 2019 created the insects' ideal breeding ground. Climate change might only be making the problem worse.

  • Keith Cressman:

    There's eight cyclones in 2019. Usually, there's none or one.

    So, you know, obviously something's going on with the weather. It could be climate change. But, you know, whatever it is, I mean, if we see this trend continuing, it's going to mean that there's going to be more desert locust upsurges like we're facing this year.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    While the world fights the coronavirus, much of East Africa is battling a second threat, with no reprieve in sight.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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