Worst outbreak of locust in Kenya is far from over

A woman from the Turkana tribe walks through a swarm of desert locusts at the village of Lorengippi near the town of Lodwar, Turkana region, Kenya. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 06 July 2020

Worst outbreak of locust in Kenya is far from over

  • Limited financial capacity of the affected African countries hampers control efforts

NAIROBI: The crunch of young locusts comes with nearly every step. The worst outbreak of the voracious insects in Kenya in 70 years is far from over, and their newest generation is now finding its wings for proper flight.

The livelihoods of millions of already vulnerable people in East Africa are at stake, and people like Boris Polo are working to limit the damage. The logistician with a helicopter firm is on contract with the United
Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, helping to find and mark locust swarms for the targeted pesticide spraying that has been called the only effective control.

“It sounds grim because there’s no way you’re gonna kill all of them because the areas are so vast,” he told The Associated Press from the field in northwestern Kenya on Thursday. “But the key of the project is to minimize” the damage, and the work is definitely having an effect, he said.

For months, a large part of East Africa has been caught in a cycle with no end in sight as millions of locusts became billions, nibbling away the leaves of both crops and the brush that sustains the livestock so important to many families.

“The risk of significant impact to both crops and rangelands is very high,” the regional IGAD Climate Prediction & Applications Center said Wednesday in a statement.

For now, the young yellow locusts cover the ground and tree trunks like a twitching carpet, sometimes drifting over the dust like giant grains of sand.

In the past week and a half, Polo said, the locusts have transformed from hoppers to more mature flying swarms that in the next couple of weeks will take to long-distance flight, creating the vast swarms that can largely blot out the horizon. A single swarm can be the size of a large city.

Once airborne, the locusts will be harder to contain, flying up to 200 km a day.

“They follow prevailing winds,” Polo said. “So they’ll start entering Sudan, Ethiopia and eventually come around toward Somalia.” By then, the winds will have shifted and whatever swarms are left will come back into Kenya.

“By February, March of next year they’ll be laying eggs in Kenya again,” he said. The next generation could be up to 20 times the size of the previous one.

The trouble is, only Kenya and Ethiopia are doing the pesticide control work. “In places like Sudan, South Sudan, especially Somalia, there’s no way, people can’t go there because of the issues those countries are having,” Polo said.




Locusts swarm on a tree south of Lodwar town in Turkana county, Kenya. (AP)

“The limited financial capacity of some of the affected countries and the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic have further hampered control efforts. Additionally, armed conflict in Somalia rendered some of the locust breeding areas inaccessible,” ICPAC expert Abubakr Salih Babiker and colleagues wrote in correspondence published in the journal Nature Climate Change this month.

Since “more extreme climate variability could increase the likelihood of pest outbreaks and spread,” they called for a better early warning system for the region and urged developing countries to help.

The World Bank earlier this year announced a $500 million program for countries affected by the historic desert locust swarms, while the FAO has sought more than $300 million.

The pesticide spraying in Kenya “has definitely borne fruit,” said Kenneth Mwangi, a satellite information analyst with ICPAC. There’s been a sharp decline from the first wave of locusts, and a few counties that had seen “huge and multiple swarms” now report little to none. Areas experiencing the second wave are notably the farthest from control centers, he said.

It’s been more challenging in Ethiopia, where despite the spraying, new locust swarms arrived from Somalia and parts of northern Kenya. “Unfortunately both waves have found crops in the field,” Mwangi said.

But without the control work, Polo said, the already dramatic swarms would be even more massive.

“These plagues are part of nature,” Polo said. “They actually rejuvenate the areas. They don’t kill the plants, they eat the leaves. Everything grows back.

“They don’t harm the natural world, they harm what humans need in the natural world.”

He and colleagues target the locusts in the early mornings before they leave their roosting spots and start flying in the heat of the day. The work has gone on since March.


INTERVIEW: Cambridge Medical focuses on post-pandemic rehabilitation

Updated 01 November 2020

INTERVIEW: Cambridge Medical focuses on post-pandemic rehabilitation

  • CEO of UAE-based clinics group explains why Saudi Arabia is the next stop in Middle East expansion strategy

At one point towards the end of my Zoom conversation with Howard Podolsky, chief executive officer of the Abu Dhabi-based Cambridge Medical and Rehabilitation Center, I suggested that he sounded a lot more like Dr Anthony Fauci, the American public health advisor, than he did President Trump.

“I’m a doctor at heart. It’s all about being smart and following the science,” Podolsky said, leaving little doubt as to how he views the big debate going on about how to react to the COVID-19 pandemic. “From a political and a pandemic standpoint, it breaks my heart to see all the craziness in the USA,” he added.

Podolsky, who has worked in the medical sector in the Middle East since 2012, has watched the progress of the pandemic in the region and the world with an expert’s eye since the beginning of the year, all the while running the business that has played a big role in alleviating pressure on the public health sector in the UAE as it battled the infection.

Cambridge is a specialist operator in the post-acute medical field, providing care and rehabilitation treatment for long-term ailments to patients from all age groups with different clinical needs.

That function was of crucial importance when cases were rising and hospitals were under threat of being overwhelmed in the early spring. Many COVID patients were in urgent need of intensive care treatment, often involving ventilation, and hospital capacity was under strain.

“The authorities saw a serious and significant need, and we had the flexibility to take non-COVID patients to free up acute care capacity, giving them the capacity to surge up if needed,” Podolsky said.

That co-operation between Cambridge and the UAE medical authorities has continued since the first wave of the virus. Podolsky’s two centers in Abu Dhabi and in Al-Ain have been taking post-COVID patients who are no longer infectious but may still need ventilator treatment, or are in therapy to wean them off ventilators, which is one of Cambridge’s specialties.

“Many patients no longer need to be in intensive care but still need treatment. All our staff are educated and trained in the science and technology of transitional ventilator weaning. It can take months or even years. We can incorporate them into our long-term rehabilitation services,” he said.

Cambridge is the only provider of long-term, post acute care in the UAE, offering facilities for in-patients through its 106 beds in the capital, 90 in Al-Ain, as well as out-patient and homecare facilities.

Last year, it saw a gap in the market in Saudi Arabia, and opened up in Dhahran, the home of Saudi Aramco, where it already had a relationship with the oil company’s long-term medical partner, Johns Hopkins.

“Saudi Arabia was a logical place for us,” Podolsky said. Not only did the much bigger population than the UAE make it a market rich in potential, but it was also relatively underserved in terms of post-acute care and rehabilitation facilities. “It made sense for us to explore the opportunity to develop a platform for long-term care in the Kingdom,” he added.


BIO

BORN: Toronto, Canada 1965

EDUCATION

  • Graduate from Buffalo School of Medical Science
  • Graduate from St Louis University School of Law
  • MBA from Washington University School of St Louis

CAREER

  • Various senior executive positions in US healthcare organizations
  • Group chief of staff, SEHA Abu Dhabi
  • Executive in residence, TVM Operations
  • Group chief executive officer, Cambridge Medical and Rehabilitation Centre.

Cambridge built a 60-bed “brownfield” centre in Dhahran that takes referrals not just from Johns Hopkins but also from other parts of the Saudi healthcare system. “There is a big ‘bed gap’ in Saudi post-acute care, and we are looking at opportunities elsewhere, around the big population centers in Riyadh and Jeddah,” Podolsky said. Cambridge could look to acquire a potential centre, as well as do a “brownfield” build.

The medical sector in the Kingdom is one of the areas earmarked for big expansion under the Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy, and hospitals, clinics and medical centers have been discussed as possible subjects for privatization under the Vision.

Podolsky was a medical doctor before he studied law and business in the USA and then joined SEHA, the Abu Dhabi health services authority.

Cambridge launched in the UAE in 2014 with the backing of private equity investors led by TVM Capital Healthcare, the big global healthcare investment group. As with most medical operations in the region, it is run as a commercial operation, and Podolsky said that the COVID crisis has — on balance — been good for business.

“We were busy already, but it has been positive for us. Unlike some medical businesses in the regions, we were never dependent on whether a patient makes a decision on elective health treatment,” he said.

Non-COVID related business — whether in strokes or post-traumatic traffic accident care — has continued during the pandemic. “Life doesn’t stop because there is a pandemic,” he said.

It was recently reported that TVM was looking to exit its investment in Cambridge, most likely via a sale of its stake to another hospital business. Podolsky is guarded on that possibility.

“Shareholders are always looking at opportunities. Our focus is on creating value for all our stakeholders — investors, customers and patients,” he said.

Is it the right time to sell a medical business in the middle of the biggest global health threat experienced for a century?

“It depends what kind of business it is. If it’s a business that depends on elective, discretionary decisions by patients, maybe not. But we are an integral part of the healthcare eco-system in the region, and we have embedded ourselves in it,” Podolsky said.

The other factor that has complicated the medical business scene in the UAE is the scandal that has overtaken NMC Healthcare, the Abu Dhabi-founded company that has gone bust with billions of dollars in debts and allegations of theft, fraud and forgery flying. Is there an “NMC discount” applied to the medical sector in the region?

“Healthcare organizations should not be painted with a broad brush. We are founded on integrity and governance, and TVM is focused on that as ethical and accountable business practice,” Podolsky said.

One of the NMC businesses, ProVita International Medical Centre, was acquired from investors including TVM in 2015, and operates in a similar segment to Cambridge. Many parts of NMC’s business are believed to be up for sale under a strategy to reduce its high levels of debt. “We’ll evaluate opportunities as they may or may not become available,” Podolsky said.

With his doctor’s hat back on, Podolsky talked more about the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the possibility of a vaccine to halt the spread of a virus that is currently in a damaging “second wave” phase in many parts of the world. He is “cautiously optimistic.”

“I hope we could see several safe and successful vaccines by the end of the year, but getting them delivered will be the challenge. Remember we’re talking about a vaccine for more than 7 billion people, maybe with two shots.

“But I don’t think COVID is going away. It will not disappear, it will not be eradicated like polio. I think there will be micro-outbreaks for a considerable time, and it will be part of the public health ecosystem. We will just have to live with it, like we do with flu,” he said.

Part of “living with it” involves more testing, which he said could be an explanation for the big rise in cases in some countries that have ramped up testing efforts.

The UAE is treating front-line health workers with a Chinese-made vaccine, while also co-operating with manufacturers in other countries, but Podolsky has no time for “vaccine nationalism” by which countries try to be first with a cure or reserve treatments for their own populations. “It’s unfortunate that we have political issues around public health and pandemics. We need to follow the science and be transparent, open and honest,” he said.

He also took some comfort from the falling death rates from the disease, which he attributed to better therapeutics and treatment. “We’ve got smarter about how we treat patients to help them overcome the infections and issues with their immune response. As we get better, we will see fewer fatalities,” he said.

On the big debate about whether the world should just get on with its economic life regardless of the health threat to the most vulnerable, he said: “It is not a binary choice. We should protect the most vulnerable — the old, the obese and other high risk people — and take simple measures to target high risk people, like social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands,” he said.