Coronavirus, climate and locusts

East Africa’s children face multiple crises

UNICEF
SAFOULA Lovely, 10 years old, student in grade 10
UNICEF/UNI338737/ZIAVOULA
08 July 2020

East Africa’s children are suffering on a number of fronts: the worst invasion of desert locusts for more than 25 years; back to back droughts in some parts; flood devastation in other areas; and of course the dark umbrella of COVID-19 threatening essential health, education and protection services.

Heavy rains during the March to May rainy season have resulted in overflowing rivers, lakes and mudslides, causing floods, displacement, loss of lives and livelihoods and damage to key infrastructure. In Kenya, for instance, near on 200 people have died, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes. In Ethiopia, more than 300,000 have lost their homes; while in Somalia, flooding has displaced over 900,000 people. Amid it all is the coronavirus pandemic. Stay at home measures are a good plan, though of course you can’t stay home if yours has been washed away.

In a further dark twist, the rains are good news for the desert locust. The resulting vegetation will be enough to sustain further generations of the world’s most destructive migratory pest. In Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia the swarms of locusts are freakishly large, highly mobile, and in areas already familiar with food crises, extremely destructive to crops. In Ethiopia alone, the locust invasion has affected 50 per cent of available pastures in the worst hit areas since they arrived last July.

In Kenya, just as farmers plan to take to the fields for crop harvest, an increasing number of second-generation immature swarms continue to form, posing a dire threat to food production. Swarms are expected to move northwards to Ethiopia where they will mature quickly and lay eggs.

Desert locust swarm
FAO/Sven Torfinn
A swarm of desert locusts

At the sharp end are the children who will not get enough to eat. UNICEF and its nutrition partners predict that the number of children needing to be treated for severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in Ethiopia this year will rise by 24 per cent. Such a large increase could trigger a spike in child mortality, as children with SAM are more likely to die from infectious diseases such as measles and malaria. Indeed SAM admissions in the six desert-locust-affected regions of Ethiopia rose 20 per cent between January and February this year when compared with the same period in 2019.

These are of course alarming numbers if we were just looking at one crisis. But in the midst of all this lies Covid19. By way of just one example, due to school closures, one million children from the poorest families in Ethiopia are being deprived of school meals, often their only source of reliable nutrition. Measles and polio campaigns planned for March were postponed. As COVID-19 cases rise, health workers and supplies could be deployed elsewhere, leaving children suffering from diseases like malaria and cholera unable to receive adequate treatment.

In a bid to reach the an ever-growing number of vulnerable children. UNICEF and partners are with life-saving water, sanitation and hygiene supplies and services. But the need is outstripping worryingly overstretched efforts from the UN Children’s Fund.

From Berlin to Bangkok, Sydney to Seattle, people across the globe are suffering in some way at this time. But the children of East Africa are being hit in all directions. And despite valiant efforts by governments, communities, agencies like UNICEF and of course mums and dads, there are times when additional support is essential. Thankfully, there are things that can be done: treatment programmes can be scaled up; vulnerable families can be supported with cash transfers to enable them to buy food; and every caregiver needs the right information to prevent malnutrition, such as encouraging breastfeeding. All require financial support, but as we have seen time again, money spent now saves both lives and money in the future.