Sharp Edges

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca

News reports have called it “a plague of biblical proportions.”

But they’re not talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bible actually has very little to say about pandemics.

About death from starvation or drought, yes. About death in war, oh my goodness yes. But very little about mass deaths from diseases — if I exclude the book of Revelation, which smacks its lips at the prospect of wiping out one-third of the world’s population in a single trumpet blast.

Rather, the “biblical plague” refers to locusts. Billions upon billions of flying grasshoppers that descend from the sky in clouds and eat the leaves off everything. Yes ma’am, even your prize peonies.

It won’t make The National, I’d guess, but right now great plagues of locusts are demolishing agricultural crops across east Africa, Somalia, Yemen, parts of Iran, Pakistan and India.

Video clips show them swirling in the sky like an onrushing sandstorm. Darkening the sky. Swarming over plants so thickly they look like moving bark.

And this is happening in the midst of a global pandemic that tends to hit hardest among the poor, the malnourished, and the overcrowded, eating the meagre drops that those people depend on for the next year, in countries already ravaged by wars.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, a swarm of about 40 million desert locusts can consume as much food in one day as a city of 35,000 people. Swarms can cover several hundred square kilometres, with as many as 80 million adults per square kilometre.

They make the situation far worse than just twice as bad. It’s one disaster multiplied by another disaster — disaster squared, in mathematical terms.

There are so many locusts that rural villages have resorted to banging pots and pans hoping to drive the invaders away.

Car accidents have been blamed on roads made slick by crushed locusts. Airlines have re-routed flights to avoid swarms of locusts.

Local governments have responded by spraying insecticides, of various kinds — from the ground, from airplanes, even from drones.

Nothing works.

There is only one good thing about plagues of locusts. They go in boom and bust cycles. Until this year, Kenya hadn’t had a major locust outbreak for 70 years; Somalia, about 30.

And what are these fearsome critters, you ask. Basically, your ordinary garden variety grasshopper. The same thing that your kids hold in their hands, and squeal with delight when it leaps away.

Normally, grasshoppers are solitary, inoffensive creatures that browse quietly on leaves and grass.

But given the right climate conditions, they transform from Mr. Milquetoast to King Kong. They change colour. And choler. Biologists say they become gregarious. That means they cluster together. In human terms, they turn into rampaging mobs.

Most grasshoppers can fly, if they have to. They’d rather hop, firing themselves into the distance by their powerful hind legs.

But a mob of locusts can fly 150 kilometres in a day. They can fly across the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. They can fly over the mountain ranges of Afghanistan. In 1988, swarms from North Africa rode trade winds across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and South America.

The triggering factor seems to be climate. Changes in climate — not the same thing as “climate change,” although the two may be related — where one wetter-then-normal season provides food for grasshopper populations to grow.

A second wet season enables exponential growth. Humble grasshoppers become ravaging locusts.

The four species prone to becoming plagues call the regions around the Indian Ocean their home. Of these, the desert locust is the most prolific.

It was almost certainly the desert locust that descended on Egypt in Moses’ time. Moses, you’ll recall, wanted to pressure the ruler of Egypt, the Pharaoh, to free his Hebrew slaves. “Let my people go,” Moses threatened, “or else!”

“Or else what?” retorted a contemptuous Pharaoh.

So, according to the Bible, Moses called up 10 plagues. The Nile turned undrinkable. Dying frogs littered the streets. Lice and then flies made life miserable. Livestock died. People got boils. Hailstorms flattened crops. Darkness for three whole days.

The locusts were Moses’ eighth plague, chomping everything the hail hadn’t flattened.

The final plague, of course, was the death of every oldest child. That accomplished what even the locusts couldn’t — it set the slaves free.

Tragically, the current plague of locusts is likely to do the exact opposite. It will flush already impoverished peoples deeper down the drain of disease, conflict, and starvation.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca.