Innovation and Disaster Management

“If we find ways to capture and kill large number of locusts without making them toxic with pesticides, then we could make up for food losses by making the locusts available to eat, offsetting the economic damage wreaked by locusts by making use of the locusts themselves. Locusts are commonly eaten in Israel and Africa. We can derive other nutritive uses, like feeding locusts to chickens and using them as bait in fishing….”

Bakr Eid is a time of mass handling and distribution of livestock in Muslim societies. This sort of thing creates a significant risk of animal-to-human disease transmission, particularly of tick-borne diseases like Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (or Congo fever), which are the most prevalent in summer. A Congo fever outbreak could be especially serious during the COVID-19 pandemic, as our ability to handle both crises would be limited.

In circumstances like this, the responsibility for containing hazards like Congo fever will have to fall more upon individual people, like those who are handling animals during Bakr-Eid. After all, it has become more difficult for things to be done in a coordinated manner when social interactions have to be curbed.

Furthermore, whenever a great crisis and disruption like the coronavirus pandemic descends upon people, the best way to respond is with innovation. We don’t just do what comes across as an obvious solution, like, for example, the lockdowns imposed due to coronavirus. We also have to think outside the box in developing workable solutions. Albert Einstein once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. In finding solutions to crises, especially crises of an unfamiliar kind, we must utilize our imagination in addition to knowledge.

When it comes to Congo fever (a relatively minor hazard in Pakistan), given that there is no cure or vaccine for the disease, our efforts have to focus on the tick that causes the Congo virus. Ticks are vectors that are very difficult to avoid. They are tiny and can crawl onto their hosts unnoticed, hiding beneath fur, feathers, and clothing. They infest animals most frequently, passing onto or catching the virus from their hosts, and can move from animals to people. Animal handlers try out tick control in a variety of ways, mostly by using tick-repelling or tick-killing chemicals (acaricides), but these can be expensive and have environmental or health side-effects. To prevent ticks from getting onto people, one can be clad in protective clothing, but there may always be a chance that ticks can get inside.

Ticks are like most other arthropods, being very good at getting into things and moving around. Arthropods are small and versatile. That is how they are so dominant in the world and problems they cause to humanity are often insurmountable.

But insects and other arthropods have one great enemy the world over that they are very vulnerable to; Stickiness. Any insect, except probably some of those big and strong beetles, that touches a sticky surface will be trapped and unable to free itself. And there are a lot of sticky substances out there in the world (though exposed sticky surfaces are rare in the environment). It is one of the easiest material properties humans have produced.

We could use stickiness as a weapon against ticks. If we place a sticky coating somewhere that a tick is likely to tread, that tick will be stuck there and will be no longer a problem. It may eventually die or be spotted and gotten rid of. Ticks cannot fly or jump and have to walk onto their hosts. We can apply adhesive coatings to stables and other areas where livestock are kept, but better (though very likely more bothersome) is to coat animals themselves with sticky material. Maybe we can cover the entire animal with it, but as this is likely impractical, we can place the sticky coating on certain parts of the animal where the tick is most likely to pass by, like around the feet, legs and the mouths.

More important is preventing ticks from getting onto people. People who handle animals can wear full clothing and apply sticky coating to areas around openings that ticks can get into. They can just attach some very adhesive substance on the shoes, around the ankles, at the opening of sleeves, and around the neck collar because it is closest to naked skin. It might produce some inconvenience for the person, but it will be worth it to prevent diseases like Congo fever.

There are many ways to make a surface sticky. One can use tape, wrapping something with sticky side out, or we can create a covering of glue. But it can also be extracted from certain animals in large amounts, like snails. The options are endless.

Making people sticky is very feasible, as they will know how to handle it. Less so is getting animals sticky. Doing so may come with a lot of problems. But it is very important to protect our livestock from tick infestation. Human beings can do so in countless ways courtesy of their technological prowess, but effective tick control also exists in nature for wild animals. These are tick predators, particularly birds. Some birds naturally perch on the bodies of animals and pick off parasites. If we try this phenomenon on livestock, which is known as biological pest control, it might prove effective in controlling ticks. Perhaps we can turn any insectivorous bird into a tick-eater. Life stock farmers can groom birds to sit on livestock and eat ticks off them.

There is so much that can be done for Congo fever alone, but that is a very small threat compared to Pakistan’s other hazards, particularly what it is dealing with right now. We can be imaginative even in finding solutions to the locust invasions and the coronavirus pandemic. How do we manage locust infestations, for instance? If we do find ways to capture and kill large numbers of locusts without making them toxic with pesticides, then we could make up for food losses by making the locusts available to eat. That is a strategy that we should pursue in our locust response, offsetting the economic damage wreaked by locusts by making use of the locusts themselves. Locusts are commonly eaten in Israel and Africa.

We can derive other nutritive uses, like feeding locusts to chickens. In addition, we should also explore the manufacturing potential of locust body parts, what sort of things we can make from them. Locusts have the exoskeleton that is made of the tough material called chitin. There is a lot we might be able to do with it. Another thing to take note of is resilin. It makes up the tendons of locusts, as well as all insects, and it is the stretchiest substance in the world. It also does not lose its elasticity no matter how many times it is stretched. The technological applications of this are enormous, if we can extract enough of it from locusts. Pakistan can manufacture locust products and sell it on the world market to make profit.

We will have to experiment with many different ways to kill locusts. Fishing boats suspend nets in the ocean to catch schools of fish, and locust swarms are like schools of fish, but in the air, not water. To date, nobody has tried aerial fishing, but given how much technology has advanced now, perhaps it is time to investigate the feasibility of this strategy. There are so many ways we can theoretically go about it. Maybe a net, designed so that airflow keeps it wide open, can be suspended from an airplane. Maybe nets can be suspended between balloons tethered to the ground.

It is probably more feasible to attack locust hordes when they are on the ground. For example, we can design traps to catch locusts that are laid along the crops they eat. This will require a great deal of skill and ingenuity, but we must learn to efficiently make use of what we do have in order to achieve results.

Ingenuity is especially important to manage the coronavirus pandemic. This virus spreads through social interaction, so we have been essentially shutting down many basic human activities. But we cannot keep this up forever. We should find ways to redesign society so that civilization can go on without the virus being able to spread. That includes redesigning people’s personal lives. This pandemic affects or is affected by even the smallest aspects of our lives, like us stepping outside of our homes or even touching our own faces with our hands. As a result, everything about the world has suddenly changed for us. It has become a strange world, with its disruptions reaching into every aspect of our lives. To survive, we will need both innovation and change at both individual and societal levels.

We all need to step back and take a look at our lives, both the personal and public sides of it, and we need to imagine what can be changed about both suppress the virus and allow life to continue to run as much as possible. It will be ingenuity on a grand scale. Again, the resources available to us for instituting these changes will be minimal, and we will have to make do with what we can. Public guidance will be vital, but people must be tasked with choosing how they can create changes to their lives that are tailored to their circumstances. We have focused too long on just shutting down whatever we can. Now, we have to work on changing and redesigning.

For example, one of the important priorities is to allow goods to continue flowing freely. Goods will have to pass between people, but we can easily ensure that this happens without the virus also passing between people. People just carry materials and then they deposit them at their destination, where somebody else comes and picks them up, while being careful with what they touch. Furthermore, the markets that goods are being sold in should be radically restructured. Products should not be sold indoors where people gather in dense numbers. We should create open-air markets where density is so low that people are not prodded into being near one another when they are selecting or purchasing products. A lot of outdoor spaces will have to be repurposed.

One of our most senseless COVID-19 policies is shutting down supply lines for long periods of time and, when they are restored, allowing them to continue operating as they normally did before the pandemic. Things only have to be done in a slightly different way for people to exchange material goods without breathing in each other’s air or picking up the virus from surfaces they touch.

Many things we need to do are simple. That is why we will need plenty of innovation. It can minimize the difficulties we face, as we will be able to find simple solutions to major problems, such as using adhesive coatings in strategic spots to overcome tick infestations. Ingenuous problem-solving approaches of this sort will hopefully lead us to discovering effective ways of managing a wide variety of disaster risks.