India faces worst locust crisis in decades

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Updated 05 June 2020

India faces worst locust crisis in decades

  • Indo-Pak border a breeding ground for bug; worst attack in over 20 years, says expert

NEW DELHI: Suresh Kumar was sipping tea on the balcony of his Jaipur house on Friday when the sun suddenly disappeared. Thinking it was probably a black cloud that was filtering out the daylight, he looked up and saw swarms of locusts covering the sky of the capital city of the western Indian state of Rajasthan.

Within a few minutes, short-horned grasshoppers were everywhere —walls, balconies and nearby trees — as they forced people to take refuge in their houses.

“It was unprecedented,” Kumar, who lives in Jaipur’s walled city area, told Arab News on Thursday. “Never before have I witnessed such a scene. Suddenly millions of aliens invaded our locality. Some residents of the neighborhood tried to bang some steel plates to shoo them off, but the jarring sound did not make much of an impact. However, the swarms left the area within an hour or so.”

More than a thousand kilometers away, in the Balaghat district of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, farmer Dev Singh had a similar experience, although the bugs not only occupied his farmhouse, they destroyed the budding leaves of different kinds of pulses which he had sown in his field.

“Only a few weeks ago I harvested the wheat crop,” he told Arab News. “In a way, I’m lucky that the locusts have come now … otherwise the damage would have been much greater,” but he added that “with the pulse plant damaged in good measure, the yield will not be great this year.”

His area has been cleared of the locusts after the intervention of local authorities, which sprayed chemicals to kill the bugs and blared out sirens to shoo them off.

India is already grappling with an alarming surge of coronavirus cases and struggling to cope with the devastation caused by a recent cyclone. The country is also dealing with rising unemployment figures after more than 100 million people went jobless due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is facing security issues, too, in the form of a seething border dispute with China. The locust invasion has added to beleaguered India’s laundry list of woes.

Scientists said it was a serious crisis.

“This is the worst locust attack in more than two decades,” Dr. K. L. Gurjar, of the Faridabad-based Locust Warning Organization, told Arab News. “Compared to the past, these locusts are younger and have traveled a longer distance. This should be a cause of concern. The states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh will be badly impacted. We are controlling and containing the situation on a daily basis.”

According to media reports, around 50,000 hectares of farmland have been destroyed by desert locusts in the two states during the last four weeks.

“The problem will persist until the invasion of swarms continues from across the border in Pakistan and Iran. The Indo-Pak border has become the breeding ground for the bug,” Gurjar added.

But he remained hopeful that the country would get rid of the menace through its measures, despite the present danger.

“There is a danger of locusts remaining alive for a longer period, though we are hopeful to ultimately sort them out.”

The Jawaharlal Nehru Agriculture University (JNAU) of Jabalpur has also been monitoring the situation in Madhya Pradesh, noting that locusts damage the crop completely wherever they go.

“Desert locusts stay immobile throughout the night and their movement begins again in the morning and they fly along the direction of the wind,” JNAU’s Dr. Om Gupta told Arab News. “Wherever they find shelter, they damage the crops in totality. In some areas, locusts have created havoc.”

She added that spray was generally used in the evening or early morning to kill the bugs. “They breed very fast and we focus on killing their eggs. What we are dealing with is nothing short of a catastrophe, and we are not going to get respite from this anytime soon.”

Jakarta may pull ‘emergency brake’ on eased restrictions

Updated 14 July 2020

Jakarta may pull ‘emergency brake’ on eased restrictions

  • Jakarta and East Java are the two provinces most affected by the outbreak of coronavirus

JAKARTA: Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Monday urged officials to step up testing, tracing, and treatment of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the country’s worst-hit provinces.

The move followed an uptick in virus infections in the capital Jakarta and the emergence of new clusters in two military schools in West Java.

“Our main concern is to ensure that testing, tracing, and treatment remain a priority,” Widodo said during a Cabinet meeting.

And the governor of Jakarta warned that authorities could “pull the emergency brake” on easing restrictions if the number of cases in the city continued to rise.

Indonesia reported 1,282 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing the national total to 76,981, with 3,656 deaths. Jakarta and East Java are the two provinces most affected by the outbreak with overall cases of 14,979 and 16,877, respectively.

On Sunday, Jakarta recorded its highest one-day spike with 404 new confirmed cases, it being the third time the city had declared a record spike of cases in the space of a week.

Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan said that although the surge was a result of ramped up active case findings, it was also a warning to city residents who had resumed business and social activities after restrictions were eased in compliance with health protocols.

The governor added that since the beginning of June, the positivity rate of conducting 1,000 tests per 1 million of the population per week in the city had been consistently below 5 percent, as per the World Health Organization’s requirements to reopen the economy.

Sunday’s positivity rate doubled to 10.5 percent, with 66 percent of those confirmed with COVID-19 being asymptomatic.

“This is why we have to be really careful. We should not take this lightly. Do not think that we are free from the pandemic,” Baswedan said in a statement on the administration’s official YouTube channel.

“If this situation continues, we may have to pull the emergency brake policy and ... halt again all economic, religious, and social activities.”

Baswedan has extended the transition phase of large-scale social restrictions in the city until July 16.

“Given the current situation, I would suggest that we freeze the easing of restriction at the current condition and we do not move to the next transition phase to relax more restrictions,” Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia told Arab News.

He said that based on modeling conducted by the university, infection rates in the country would continue to spike until October with 4,000 confirmed cases in a day, but also cautioned that the crisis might not be over until the end of the year.

“It is difficult to make any estimation with so many uncertain variables,” he added.

Jakarta has one of the highest polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing rates in the country with at least 26,527 people tested per 1 million of population. In contrast, the national testing rate is 3,394 tests per 1 million people, according to Achmad Yurianto, spokesman for the national COVID-19 task force.

Two military schools in West Java have emerged as new clusters with more than 1,300 positive cases detected among cadets. Some of their family members were also confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 during the past week after two cadets tested positive while seeking medical treatment for unrelated sickness.

During a visit to the schools last week Army Chief of Staff Gen. Andika Perkasa said that most of the infected cadets were asymptomatic.

Riono said: “The problem is not about strict social-distancing measures. It lies with people not complying to health protocols, and they do not seem to understand the situation remains risky. Maybe because we have been addressing the situation incorrectly with the new-normal term, so people think that we are back in the normal situation.”

Yurianto said that the term was misleading, and the government would instead use the phrase “adapting new habits” to prevent the public from misunderstanding the situation in which the outbreak continued to spread.