There are no resilient families in a locust plague

Especially in a global health pandemic

In recent weeks, sitting in the comfort of my Sydney home bemoaning the lockdown and inaccessibility of toilet paper, I have often obsessively scrolled through my social media news feed.

There, among the relentless spread of COVID-19 – case increases, death rates, overwhelmed hospitals and stories of unspeakable sadness – a constant drip of locust-related news has punctuated my feed. And I have tried to ignore it, subconsciously protecting myself from more bad news.

What I know about locusts is that it is never just about locusts.

You see, what I know about locusts is that it is never just about locusts. Instead, this “once in a generation” locust plague is what the World Bank is calling a “crisis within a crisis”.

Locusts are the oldest migratory pest in the world. The swarm in East Africa in late January is estimated to have eaten 1.8 million metric tons of green vegetation every day. Or, in more relatable terms, enough food to feed 81 million people.

81 million people. It puts our pasta and flour shortage into perspective.

More than 20 million people in Eastern Africa are chronically food insecure and rely on each crop to survive. Vulnerable people are always on the edge of disaster. Resilience in weathering a crisis is reserved for those who are privileged enough to have a savings buffer, a government safety net or even a shared burden with resilient families in the community who aren’t suffering.

In the instance of a locust plague, there are no resilient families

But in the instance of a locust plague, there are no resilient families. Entire crops are wiped out, people lose food store for the hungry season, they lose their only source of income to pay school fees or medical bills. They lose their seed for next year, which means that this isn’t a single year crisis; without intervention, this can become a multi-year famine.

Those who are most vulnerable will suffer first, longest and hardest – those without the physical ability to beat away the locusts, or who have small children at home and cannot leave to supplement their income with external labour. Those who can’t afford the pesticide to spray will simply have to watch their future being eaten in front of them.

My mother grew up in India and she told me stories of being caught in locust swarms and running into the house to escape, being terrified as they flew into her hair but knowing there was safety if she could just get to the house. In Kenya, Somalia, Yemen, Djibouti, Pakistan, Iran and many other nations, there is simply nowhere to go.

In the case of Northern Kenya, Western Uganda or Yemen, increased hunger may lead to increased fear of refugees and internally displaced people who are continuing to crowd over the border from insecure nations, or war-torn areas of their own nation. People begin to look to their own. Much as we have seen across our own nations as COVID-19 has begun to bite, our focus is on ourselves and our families sometimes at others’ expense.

We have seen food hoarding across Australia and in other nations, which is a symptom of fear and turning inwards. Again, this is a privilege of those with funds to bulk-buy, to purchase more than they need.

In places such as Uganda or Yemen or Ethiopia, loss of income and crops will lead to similar challenges for the vulnerable. Even in immensely generous nations that have welcomed millions of refugees, a crisis of famine may lead to increased fear and persecution of the most vulnerable.

Travel bans, border closures and disruption of global supply chains have stymied the efforts of countries to respond to swarms effectively.

As a global aid community, we know what to do about locust swarms: cooperate across national borders using helicopters to monitor the swarms and then quickly treat them with pesticide sprayed from the air.

But in this “crisis within a crisis,” when the plague and COVID-19 pandemic coincide, doing what is needed has become impossible as travel bans, border closures and disruption of global supply chains have stymied the efforts of countries to respond to swarms effectively.

At present, Kenya has only 10 days left of the pesticide sprays and the lockdown in South Africa has made accessing helicopters difficult. And in Yemen, millions are already on the edge of starvation from years of conflict and the predictions are dire.

Aid agencies are desperately hoping for support to fight the crisis, but global funding has fallen far short of what is required so far. Organisations such as World Vision are estimating that as many as 50 per cent of their sponsored children across the region could be affected. There is a small window of opportunity for the world to respond or we risk millions more people being dragged back down into extreme poverty or worse.

Hunger, famine and disease always exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. This is true when it comes to increased death rate of minorities in the US by COVID-19 and it is true when it comes to the risk carried by those most vulnerable to a locust plague.

There is no levelling of the playing field in a crisis, just an increased awareness of that inequality.

There is no levelling of the playing field in a crisis, just an increased awareness of that inequality. Those who the Bible describes as “the least of these,” the so-called, “quartet of the vulnerable”, are always at most risk.

As someone who has worked in humanitarian aid for 15 years, I am frankly terrified by this locust plague and the nexus with COVID-19. I would love to look away, hide myself in lockdown memes and complain about having to use rice instead of pasta.

But I simply can’t. As Christians, we are called to care for the least of these as if we are caring for Jesus. And today “the least of these” are running from locusts.

Catherine Thambiratnam has a Master’s degree in International Community development and works locally and globally to run all Hillsong Church’s Social Justice programs and partnerships.

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