Weeks before the coronavirus spread through much of the world, parts of Africa were already threatened by another kind of plague, the biggest locust outbreak some countries had seen in 70 years.
Now the second wave of the voracious insects, some 20 times the size of the first, is arriving. Billions of the young desert locusts are winging in from breeding grounds in Somalia in search of fresh vegetation springing up with seasonal rains.
Millions of already vulnerable people are at risk. And as they gather to try to combat the locusts, often in vain, they risk spreading the virus — a topic that comes a distant second for many in rural areas.
It is the locusts that "everyone is talking about," said Yoweri Aboket, a farmer in Uganda. "Once they land in your garden they do total destruction. Some people will even tell you that the locusts are more destructive than the coronavirus. There are even some who don't believe that the virus will reach here."
Some farmers in Abokat's village near the Kenyan border bang metal pans, whistle or throw stones to try to drive the locusts away. But mostly they watch in frustration, largely barred by a coronavirus lockdown from gathering outside their homes.
A failed garden of cassava, a local staple, means hunger. Such worries in the village of some 600 people are reflected across a large part of East Africa, including Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan. The locust swarms also have been sighted in Djibouti, Eritrea, Tanzania and Congo.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has called the locust outbreak, caused in part by climate change, "an unprecedented threat" to food security and livelihoods. Its officials have called this new wave some 20 times the size of the first.
"The current situation in East Africa remains extremely alarming as ... an increasing number of new swarms are forming in Kenya, southern Ethiopia and Somalia," a new FAO assessment said.
Favorable breeding conditions through May mean there likely will be another new round of swarms in late June and July, coinciding with the start of the harvest season, the agency said.
The U.N. has raised its aid appeal from $76 million to $153 million, saying immediate action is needed before more rainfall fuels further growth in locust numbers. So far the FAO has collected $111 million in cash or pledges.
The locusts are "invading the Eastern Africa region in exceptionally large swarms like never seen before," the Nairobi-based Climate Prediction and Application Center said.
The new swarms include "young adults," voracious bugs "that eat more than the adult ones," said Kenneth Mwangi, a satellite information analyst at the center.
Mwangi and other officials in Kenya cited difficulties in fighting the infestation as coronavirus-related travel restrictions slow cross-border travel and delay the delivery of pesticides.
The verification work of field officers has been curtailed, making it harder for the center to update regional prediction models, Mwangi said.
In rural Laikipia county, among the worst affected in Kenya, some are calling attention to the threat to commercial farms.
"I think, unfortunately, because of other things going on around the world, people are forgetting about the problem with the locusts. But it's a very, very real problem," farmer George Dodds told the FAO.
Aerial spraying is the only effective way to control the locust outbreak. After the locusts crossed into Uganda for the first time since the 1960s, soldiers resorted to using hand-held spray pumps because of difficulties in obtaining the needed aircraft.
Uganda's agriculture minister said authorities are unable to import enough pesticides from Japan, citing disruptions to international cargo shipments.
The government is yet to meet an additional budget of over $4 million requested for locust control, the minister said.
The sum is substantial in a country where the president has been fundraising from wealthy people to help respond to the virus and its economic disruption. Health workers are threatening to strike over lack of protective gear.
Other countries face similar challenges.
In Ethiopia, where some 6 million people live in areas affected by the locust outbreak, the infestation if unchecked "will cause large-scale crop, pasture and forest-cover loss, worsening food and feed insecurity," the FAO says.
Bands of immature locusts are forming in areas that include the country's breadbasket, the Rift Valley region, it said.
Ethiopia's agriculture minister has said efforts are underway to deploy six helicopters against the infestation that could last until late August.
But ministry spokesman Moges Hailu spoke of an ominous sign: The locust swarms are now appearing in locations where they had not been previously sighted.
The U.S. military said Tuesday it has killed a high-ranking leader of the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group with an airstrike in Somalia.
A statement by the U.S. Africa Command said Yusuf Jiis was one of three extremists killed in Thursday's airstrike near Bush Madina in the Bay region.
The U.S. called Jiis a "foundational member" of al-Shabab, which controls parts of central and southern Somalia and frequently carries out attacks in the capital, Mogadishu.
"While we might like to pause our operations in Somalia because of the coronavirus, the leaders of al-Qaida, al-Shabaab and ISIS have announced that they see this crisis as an opportunity to further their terrorist agenda so we will continue to stand with and support our African partners," AFRICOM commander Gen. Stephen Townsend said.
The U.S. in a separate statement said an airstrike on Monday killed five al-Shabab members near Jilib.
The statement said the U.S. was aware of reports alleging that the airstrike killed civilians but that AFRICOM assesses none were killed.
This isn't the first time the U.S. been accused of killing civilians with airstrikes in Somalia. AFRICOM last week announced it would publish a quarterly report addressing allegations, the same day Amnesty International released its latest investigation into airstrikes and said two strikes in February had killed two civilians and injured three others.
Armed men attacked an army camp in Mali's north, killing at least 25 soldiers, the army said Tuesday.
"Yesterday, our camp in the town of Bamba in the Gao region was attacked" and six others were wounded, said army spokesman Col. Maj. Diarran Kone.
The army was in control of Bamba as of Tuesday, he added.
The attack has not been claimed but bore the mark of armed groups linked to al-Qaida or the Islamic State group that are present in the Gao region.
This is the second major attack since the beginning of the year against army positions in the Gao region. More than 30 soldiers were killed near the end of March in an attack on the village of Tarkint.
The attacks come at a time when the government has announced its intention to open dialogue with armed groups linked to al-Qaida.
At least 17 medics in Egypt's main cancer hospital have been quarantined after testing positive for the coronavirus, officials said Saturday, raising fears the pandemic could prey on health facilities in the Arab world's most populous country.
Egypt has reported around 1,000 confirmed cases and 66 fatalities from the global pandemic. Authorities have closed schools and mosques, banned public gatherings and imposed a nighttime curfew to prevent the virus from spreading among the population of 100 million, a fifth of whom live in the densely-populated capital, Cairo.
Dr. Hatem Abu el-Kassem, the director of the National Cancer Institute, said three doctors and 12 nurses tested positive for the virus. He said all other health workers at the facility, which is affiliated with Cairo University and treats hundreds of cancer patients every day, would be tested. The university later said a total of 17 health workers tested positive.
The institute will be partly closed for three days to be sterilized, with only the emergency ward remaining open.
Several doctors took to social media to criticize the institute's leadership for not taking restrictive measures earlier.
Maggie Mousa, an anesthesiologist at the institute, tweeted that one of her close friends was infected. She accused top officials of mismanagement and negligence for not imposing restrictions after the first case was detected more than a week ago.
"They refused to take any measures to protect her and isolate the institute," she said.
Cairo University said it has established a fact-finding mission to investigate the measures taken by the institute to prevent the virus from spreading.
The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems, including cancer patients.
As the number of infections has grown to more than 1.1 million worldwide, the exposure of personnel at health facilities is of growing concern.
More than a million people have been infected worldwide and more than 50,000 have died from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus. More than 200,000 have recovered, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University.
Egypt's Health Ministry reported a spike in cases on Friday, with 120 new infections and eight fatalities, its highest one-day tally since the first case was reported in February.
The government has not yet imposed the kind of total lockdown seen in other countries in the region, but officials have said there are plans for stricter measures if needed.
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said in a statement Saturday that many projects the government was planning to open this year would be postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic. They include the Grand Egyptian Museum that's been under construction for over a decade and intended to showcase Egypt's ancient treasures as well as the country's new administrative capital in the desert outside of Cairo.
The worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East is in Iran, where the Health Ministry on Saturday reported another 158 deaths. That brings the overall number of fatalities there to 3,452, amid 55,743 confirmed cases. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said more than 4,000 patients are in serious condition.
Some African countries will have more than 10,000 coronavirus cases by the end of April, health officials projected Thursday, as the continent least equipped to treat serious infections has an "enormous gap" in the number of ventilators and other critical items.
While cases across Africa are now above 6,000 at what has been called the dawn of the outbreak, the continent is "very, very close" to where Europe was after a 40-day period, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. John Nkengasong, told reporters.
The virus "is an existential threat to our continent," he said. All but five of Africa's 54 countries have cases, and local transmission has begun in many of those with the virus.
Nkengasong said authorities are "aggressively" looking into procuring equipment such as ventilators that most African countries desperately need, and local manufacturing and repurposing are being explored.
"We've seen a lot of goodwill expressed to supporting Africa from bilateral and multilateral partners," but "we still have to see that translate into concrete action," he said.
The World Health Organization doesn't know how many ventilators are available across Africa to help those in respiratory distress, regional director Dr. Matshidiso Moeti told reporters. "We are trying to find out this information from country-based colleagues. ... What we can say without a doubt is there is an enormous gap."
Some countries have only a few ventilators. Central African Republic has just three.
A small percentage of people who are infected will need ventilators and about 15% may need intensive care, said WHO official Dr. Zabulon Yoti.
The health officials pleaded for global solidarity at a time when even some of the world's richest countries are scrambling for basic medical needs, including face masks.
"Countries like Cameroon just reached out yesterday, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, asking, 'Look, we need tents because we're running out of hospital beds already,'" Nkengasong said.
Even if equipment is obtained, getting them to countries is a growing challenge with Africa's widespread travel restrictions, though countries have made exceptions for cargo or emergency humanitarian flights.
Simply gauging the number of coronavirus cases in Africa is a challenge, even in South Africa, the most developed country on the continent, where authorities have acknowledged a testing backlog.
Other countries suffer from the widespread shortage of testing kits or swabs, though 43 countries in the WHO Africa sub-Saharan region now have testing capability, up from two in early February.
As more African countries impose lockdowns, both the WHO and Africa CDC expressed concern for the millions of low-income people who need to go out daily to earn their living. That's a "huge challenge," Moeti said, noting that hundreds of thousands of children are now out of school as well.
It is too soon to tell how the lockdown in places like South Africa has affected the number of cases, she added.
The lockdowns are causing unease. Police herded several hundred homeless people into a stadium in South Africa's capital, Pretoria, where tents were erected for shelter and methadone was provided for many. There were complaints about the lack of sanitizer or soap.
The first sub-Saharan African nation to impose a lockdown, Rwanda, has now extended it by two weeks, a sign of what might be to come for other nations.
"Don't lock down the whole country," Nkengasong said. "Lock down cities or communities where there's extensive community transmission so .. social harm is minimized. But if infection is spreading across the entire country, you have no choice."
Health experts in Africa are rushing to understand whether factors such as Africa's youthful population — some 70% of the continent's people are under age 30 — will be a benefit in fighting off the virus and how the widespread problems of malnutrition, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria might affect people's ability to fight off infection.
"Our greatest fear" is that programs tackling those perennial issues will be sapped by the current crisis, Nkengasong said. "The time to advocate for those programs is not when COVID is over. The time is now."
Dr. Meredith McMorrow, Medical Officer in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's influenza division, acknowledged to reporters that the U.S. is "suffering right now" and that limits the U.S. ability to respond with overseas aid. But she said the U.S. is helping African nations procure overseas equipment "as rapidly as possible."
The latest African nation to report its first virus death was Zambia.