As the world collectively endures the coronavirus, across the Middle East and parts of East Africa, another problem ensues. In the dry heat of the desert, historically large swarms of locusts have spread, causing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage to homes, irrigation systems and farms. But beyond devastating the land that the global food system depends on, these swarms represent a greater existential threat to the religiously devout. To them, they are, along with COVID-19, a sign that the End Times have arrived. Judgment Day is upon us.
While global catastrophes are said to be “predicted” by scripture, these references often lack specificity, meaning that any kind of disaster — whether it’s a recession or a hurricane — can be drummed up to fit the bill. Locusts, on the other hand, are both highly specific and among God’s favorite punishments. The most famous example is in the Book of Exodus, in which He unleashes the 10 plagues, including swarms of locusts, after Pharaoh Ramesses II refuses the command to free the Israelites.
But locusts appear throughout the Bible. In the Book of Revelation, they’re referenced as an early sign of God’s presence and power, since they can both destroy societies as well as build them back up. In the Book of Chronicles, meanwhile, God claims to have punished the people of Ancient Judah by sending a swarm of locusts — an act designed to make them seek forgiveness in Him. “Whenever I hold back the rain or send locusts to eat up the crops or send an epidemic on my people,” it reads, “if they pray to me and repent and turn away from the evil they have been doing, then I will hear them in heaven, forgive their sins and make their land prosperous again.”
In fact, it was this bible passage that Young Thug shared to his millions of Instagram followers last week, suggesting that both coronavirus and swarms of locusts were divine signs for humanity to repent.
Not that Biblical scholars necessarily agree with him. They mostly chalk up heightened anxiety from the pandemic as the reason why religious doomsday theories have gained greater prominence in recent weeks. “Locusts are a frequent motif in the Bible, but their uses can be literal or figurative,” says Paul Middleton, one such scholar at Chester University in the U.K. Plus, he adds, “It’s just one reading of Revelation where it’s assumed that all punishments happen in the same, short amount of time.” If anything, he says, the timeline for divine punishment is likely to be far longer — possibly spanning decades or centuries.
Furthermore, prophesied locusts are a specific breed, with unique markings, loud wings that “sound like chariots,” and most distinctively, “human faces,” according to Carrie, a 27-year-old former fundamentalist Evangelical Christian, for whom eschatology, or the study of the End Times, informed much of her religious upbringing. “Most Biblical literalists think the locusts actually means attack helicopters or something rather than actual locusts. Because [scripture] says that the locusts won’t harm plants or animals,” she explains, pointing out the marked difference between Biblical locusts, and the locusts currently reaping through Middle Eastern and African wheat and grain fields.
So what’s up with the locust swarms?
They’re less divine retribution and more the result of climate change, which has impacted the normal migration patterns of many insects. Specifically, between 2018 and earlier this year, areas of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula experienced historically high and unusual rainfalls, including two devastating cyclones. This, in turn, inadvertently created the conditions for three large generations of desert locust to hatch and spread at epic levels.
With climate experts predicting more freakish weather in the coming years, farmers in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have asked their governments for more support, subsidies and even hundreds of thousands of ducks to fight off the swarm. Their requests, however, have so far been rejected, leaving them to fend off the locusts themselves, enduring long-term physical damage from locust bites in the process.
In some ways, though, these farmers’ pain is exactly the proof Christian fundamentalists need to assure themselves that they are indeed on the righteous path. That is, Carrie explains, because the locust plagues are happening outside of the West, it’s easy for many true believers to convince themselves that they’ve been spared on the basis that they’re Christians. “Ultimately, they believe that what’s happening now is spiritual warfare, and that God is in control,” she tells me. “In that sense, it doesn’t matter if they die, because they’re going to heaven anyway.”