What has been the most significant event of 2020? Many of us – perhaps all of us – would answer immediately, “The coronavirus pandemic”. It has affected our lives in so many ways. Contact with friends and relatives has been made difficult or non-existent; shops, businesses and schools have been closed; workers furloughed; medical procedures delayed indefinitely; ‘social distancing’ imposed; weddings cancelled; funerals restricted…. and of course many people have been acutely ill and some have died.
It’s been a disaster on a scale that I’ve not seen before in my lifetime and the consequences are going to be with us for a very long time. Our economy’s been severely damaged, millions of jobs have been lost, the education of many children has been interrupted, there’s been social disruption on a massive scale. It will be a long time before we can begin to measure just how much harm has been done to the nation’s health, social fabric and political system.
So, yes, a disaster on a huge scale. And yet, for many people in other parts of the world, the coronavirus crisis shrinks into insignificance. Why? Because they are facing far greater threats.
The locust invasion – East Africa
Countries in East Africa are being overwhelmed by the most serious locust plague that’s been known in seventy years. Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan are among the most severely affected countries and the outbreak threatens to spread wider. These countries had already been hard-hit economically by the coronavirus crisis. But now, in some areas, they face total devastation by huge swarms of desert locusts – the most damaging of all locust species – each insect capable of eating its own weight in a day.
It’s difficult to imagine, or to describe the extent of the present and potential disaster. You’ll find terrifying videos of past and present plagues of locusts on the BBC website or on YouTube. Spend a few minutes and you’ll be left sobered. Or if you want a description written by a literary master, read the prophecy of Joel. He witnessed a plague that left the land of Israel devastated and desperate:
“What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten…
For a nation has come up against my land, powerful and beyond number; its teeth are lions’ teeth, and it has the fangs of a lioness. It has laid waste my vine and splintered my fig tree; it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down; their branches are made white…
The fields are destroyed, the ground mourns, because the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil languishes.
Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil; wail, O vinedressers, for the wheat and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished.
The vine dries up; the fig tree languishes. Pomegranate, palm, and apple, all the trees of the field are dried up, and gladness dries up from the children of man…
The seed shrivels under the clods; the storehouses are desolate; the granaries are torn down because the grain has dried up.
How the beasts groan! The herds of cattle are perplexed because there is no pasture for them; even the flocks of sheep suffer…
Fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and flame has burned all the trees of the field.
Even the beasts of the field pant for you because the water brooks are dried up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness…” (Joel 1:4-20).
“…A day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations.
Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.
Their appearance is like the appearance of horses, and like war horses they run.
As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. Before them peoples are in anguish; all faces grow pale” (Joel 2:1-6).
Here are a few facts and figures. A single swarm of locusts, a square kilometre in area, can include up to 80 million insects and can devour in one day the food that it would take to feed 35,000 people. Already they have destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops and pastureland across the region. But another generation of locust eggs is now hatching, which experts predict will create a locust population 8,000 times larger than the current infestation.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that so far it has helped national governments to kill 450 billion locusts by spraying pesticides. But it is running out or resources. It predicts that on a best case scenario 20 to 30% of the cereal harvest across those countries will be lost. The loss could be as high as 50-70%. This for people who are already among the poorest in the world.
The International Rescue Committee estimates that five million people in East Africa are in imminent danger of starvation. (That compares with an estimated half a million who have died with the coronavirus worldwide). Food supplies for another 20 million Africans are threatened.
And Africa is not the only part of the world experiencing this disaster. Pakistan, India, the Middle East, are all affected. And some South American countries – Argentina, Brazil – are now becoming aware of the threat.
The locust invasion – India
Here is one news report on the locust crisis in India: “A fresh swarm of desert locusts has entered Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest sugarcane grower, via capital city Delhi and the northern state of Haryana, according to the federal farm ministry.
Operations to control the grasshoppers are in full swing in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat, Punjab and Maharashtra, the ministry said in a statement late Saturday. Tractors, fire engines and drones are engaged in spraying pesticides to kill them, it said.
The economy… cannot risk food crops getting destroyed as millions of people have been pushed into poverty after losing their livelihoods due to the world’s most stringent stay-at-home rules. While movement restrictions are being relaxed, India has become the fourth country with more than 500,000 infections.
The hoppers (young locusts) which normally settle on trees during the night and fly during the day, have been controlled in about 127,225 hectares (314,379 acres) of area across the country between April 11 and June 26, the ministry said. Farmers grow mainly rice, pulses, cotton, sugarcane and soybeans on about 106 million hectares during the monsoon season between June and September.
In January, the biggest locust swarm to hit India’s western state of Gujarat in over a quarter of a century resulted in more than 25,000 hectares of wheat, rapeseed, cumin and potatoes being attacked, with at least a third of the crops damaged in 75% of the affected areas”. ( www.fortune.com 29 June 2020).
According to World Health Organisation figures, 194 million people in India routinely suffer from malnutrition. The locust crisis could turn malnutrition into starvation for many of these.
Think about malaria. Our friend Martin Bussey pointed out to us a few weeks back how unfazed many of his Kenyan students seemed to be by the coronavirus epidemic. But then, they face the threat of malaria constantly. It’s estimated that 3½ million Kenyans fall ill each year with the illness and over 10,000 die as a result. But that’s a small number compared with Nigeria, which saw 95,000 malaria deaths in 2018.
Across the world, 220 million people across the world suffer from malaria in any year. Over 600,000 die of the illness each year. More than half of these are children younger than five. In fact, roughly one in twelve of child deaths across the world is due to malaria. The illness kills one child every two minutes.
Then there’s HIV/AIDS. Somewhere between 1½ and 2 million people die with the illness each year across the world. Of those, more than 70% live (or rather, die) in Africa – over a million a year!
Nobody knows for sure as yet what proportion of people who contract Covid19 will die of the illness. But most researchers agree that for people under 70 who were previously in good health, the figure will be well under 1%. By contrast, in many African countries, 100% of those who contract AIDS will die of it. Without the medical provision we take for granted in the UK, to contract AIDS is to be sentenced to death. It is estimated that only half of those who contract HIV in Africa receive any treatment. The reality of HIV/AIDS has reduced life-expectancy in many African countries to under 50.
When we begin to grasp the scale of tragedy that people of all sorts are suffering across the world through natural disasters such as locust swarms, and through illnesses, we must surely feel compassion. But if we are believers, we will feel a special concern for our Christian brothers and sisters, in the particular sufferings that they experience through persecution.
Each year, Open Doors, a Christian organisation working to defend persecuted Christians issues its “World Watch List”, assessing the 50 countries where Christians are more savagely persecuted. Its most recent list – published last January – puts North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen, Iran, India and Syria at the top. The compilers believe that the number of Christians facing systematic persecution is growing rather than lessening. “In 2020, 260 million Christians live in World Watch List top 50 countries where Christians are at risk of high, very high or extreme levels of persecution. This is up from 245 million in 2019.”
One country – not in the list’s top ten – where persecution seems to be intensifying sharply is China. In the year covered by the report, more than 5,500 churches buildings have been destroyed, closed down or confiscated. That puts our problems into perspective doesn’t it? For the past three months we’ve been unable to use our building and we’ve felt it. It’s been painful to be deprived of the opportunity to meet together. But for millions of Christians in China, any meeting they hold could result in severe penalties.
I’m grateful to John Sampson for the work he does each month sifting news from different parts of the world and presenting it to us in this church bulletin. I’ve not seen his report for this July bulletin. But I don’t expect that it will show that the storm of persecution has declined during the coronavirus lockdown either in China or elsewhere. Indeed, many observers would say that if anything, it has been stepped up over these past months. Governments that are hostile to Christians have felt free to launch fresh assaults against believers and churches knowing that the world’s attention is elsewhere. And terrorists in such countries as Nigeria have felt confident in their attacks on the Lord’s people, knowing that the government has no resources free to defend them.
Learning from a crisis
For all of us, these past months have been hard. It’s been a time of frustration, trial, stress and anxiety. Some of you have been very lonely. Some of you have fretted, knowing that your loved ones are exposed to the danger posed by the coronavirus. Some of you have wondered whether you’ll lose your job and your livelihood. All of us, I hope, have found it painful to be deprived of the privilege of worshipping with fellow believers.
Thankfully, it seems that the situation is getting brighter. We can go shopping again. From next week we’ll be able to take holidays again. The number of coronavirus cases is dropping. The hospitals seem to be coping. And best of all, from the 5th of July, the church will be able to meet. We’ll worship together again. We’ll see one another’s faces. We’ll pray and praise together. And soon we’ll be able to forget what it was like…? I hope not. I hope that whatever else God intends to do through this time of crisis, he will use it to teach us to care more for people all across the world who are living through constant crisis. And to care especially for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We have endured a few months of inconvenience, difficulty and spiritual deprivation. But when we compare our situations with those of many believers throughout the world, we will surely be moved to ask “why have we been so shielded?”
There are believers in East Africa, looking out over farms devastated by the locust plague and wondering how they will feed their children. There are believers in Nigeria whose children are dying of malaria – children who would have lived if their parents could have afforded medicine. There are believers in North Korea and China and Iran and many other places who for years on end have been unable to meet with the Lord’s people because they know that they are under observation and that their lives are at stake.
How much do I care about them? How much do I pray for them? If the troubles of the past three months help me to enter more into their experience, and to do something about it, the experience won’t have been wasted.
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5: 6-11)