India forced to deal with heatwave and plague of locusts as it battles Covid-19

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As if Covid-19 was not enough, India has been grappling with scorching temperatures and the worst locust invasion in decades as authorities prepared for the end of lockdown despite recording thousands of new infections every day.

This triple disaster drew biblical comparisons and forced officials to try to balance the competing demands of simultaneous public health crises: protection from eviscerating heat but also social distancing in newly reopened parks and markets.

The heat wave threatens to compound challenges of containing the virus, which has started spreading more quickly and broadly since the government began easing restrictions of one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns earlier this month.

“The world will not get a chance to breathe anymore”, said Sunita Narain of New Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment.

“The ferocity of crises are increasing, and they’re not going to be spaced out.”

When her six-year-old son woke up with a parched throat and a fever, housekeeper Kalista Ekka wanted to bring him to the hospital.

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ndian youth cool off in the River Yamuna in New Delhi, India (Manish Swarup/AP)
Young people cool off in the River Yamuna in New Delhi, India (Manish Swarup/AP)

But facing a deluge of Covid-19 patients, the doctor advised Ekka to keep him at home despite boiling temperatures in the family’s two-room apartment in a low-income neighbourhood in South Delhi.

“The fan only makes it hotter but we can’t open the window because it has no screen,” and thus no defence against malaria and dengue-carrying mosquitoes, Ekka said.

In a nearby upmarket enclave crowded with walkers and joggers every morning and at dusk, some with face coverings, some without, neighbours debated the merits of masks in an online forum.

In the heat, “it is very dangerous to work out with a mask.

“So a Catch-22 situation”, said Asmita Singh.

Temperatures soared to 47.6C in the capital New Delhi this week, marking the warmest May day in 18 years, and 50C in the desert state of Rajasthan, after the world’s hottest April on record.

India suffers from severe water shortages and tens of millions lack running water and air conditioning, leaving many to seek relief under shady trees in public parks and stepwells, the ancient structures used to harvest rainwater.

Though many people continued wearing masks properly, others pushed them onto chins, or had foregone them altogether.

An Indian man selling earthen pots beneath a bridge drinks water in Ahmedabad, India (Ajit Solanki/AP)
A man selling earthen pots beneath a bridge drinks water in Ahmedabad, India (Ajit Solanki/AP)

Cyclone Amphan, a massive super storm that crossed the unusually warm Bay of Bengal last week, sucked up huge amounts of moisture, leaving dry, hot winds to form a heat wave over parts of central and northern India.

At the same time, swarms of desert locusts have devastated crops in India’s heartland, threatening an already vulnerable region that is struggling with the economic cost of the lockdown.

Exasperated farmers have been banging plates, whistling or throwing stones to try to drive the locusts away, and sometimes even lighting fires to smoke them out.

The swarms appeared poised to head from Rajasthan north to Delhi, but on Wednesday a change in wind direction sent them southward toward the state of Madhya Pradesh instead.

K.L. Gurjar, a top official of India’s Locust Warning Organisation, said his 50-person team was scrambling to stop the swarms before breeding can take place during India’s monsoons, which begin in July.

Otherwise, he said, the locusts could destroy India’s summer crops.

Meanwhile, India reported another record single-day jump of more than 6,500 coronavirus cases on Thursday, pushing up the total to 158,333 confirmed cases and 4,531 deaths.

Indians wearing face masks in Bengaluru (Aijaz Rahi/AP)
People wearing face masks in Bengaluru (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

Prime minister Narendra Modi’s government is preparing a new set of guidelines to be issued this weekend, possibly extending the lockdown in worst-hit areas while promoting economic activity elsewhere, with unemployment surging to 25%.

The sudden halt to the Indian economy when the lockdown began on 25 March has been devastating for daily labourers and travelling workers, who fled cities on foot for their family homes in the countryside.

The government started running special trains for the workers, but deaths on the rails because of starvation or dehydration have been reported.

Others immediately put into quarantine centres upon their arrival in home districts have tested positive for Covid-19, adding to the burden of severely strained rural health systems.

Supposedly to jump start the economy, Modi’s environment ministry has moved to lower liabilities for industrial polluters and given private players the right to explore for coal and mine it. Cheap oil will fuel recovery efforts worldwide.

India Weather
A vendor drinks water on a summer day in Jammu, India (Channi Anand/AP)

Indian environmental journalist Joydeep Gupta said that the perfect storm of pandemic, heat and locusts shows India must go green. He said the government should implement policies to safeguard biodiversity and offer incentives for green energy to reduce greenhouse gases that cause climate breakdown.

Instead, “the government is promoting the same sectors of the industry that have caused the multiple crises in the first place”, he said.

But Narain said other government initiatives that expand federal agriculture employment, as well as cash transfer and food ration programmes, can help India deal more effectively with its threats.

“It’s building coping abilities of the very poor to be able to deal with stress after stress after stress,” she said.

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