‘Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19’ by Rob Wallace reviewed by Jordan Liz

Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19

Monthly Review Press, New York, 2020. 260 pp, $17.00 pb
ISBN 9781583679029

Reviewed by Jordan Liz

About the reviewer

Jordan Liz is an Assistant Professor of the Department of Philosophy at San José State …


Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of who bears responsibility for the outbreak has been hotly contested. Several media outlets and politicians, including former President Donald Trump, contend that China is responsible. One argument blames the pandemic on ‘exotic’ Chinese eating habits and ‘unhygienic’ wet markets. Another argues that the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Driven by an underlying xenophobia, Trump and his supporters have routinely referred to COVID-19 as the ‘China virus’, ‘Wuhan virus’ and even the ‘Kung flu’. Others have argued that ultimately no one is responsible for the emergence of the virus. Because viruses are naturally occurring phenomenon, the possibility of epidemics and pandemics is always present. On this view, questions of responsibility should be limited to how corporations, governments and the public respond to the pandemic. China is not responsible for the virus’ emergence, but the Chinese government is responsible for not altering the global community of the outbreak sooner. Similarly, the US government is responsible for underplaying the severity of the virus and failing to properly prepare in light of the information that they did have available.

In Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19, Rob Wallace shifts our attention to a more fundamental source of the problem: the global agribusiness industry and the entire system of food production under capitalism. Commercialized agriculture, as a byproduct of its normal operations, consistently creates the conditions for new outbreaks. The basic outline Wallace provides throughout the book goes like this: rich and diverse ecosystems provide a natural barrier against viral outbreaks. On the one hand, their sheer size maintains a large distance between humans and deadly viruses; and on the other hand, the biodiversity makes it harder for viruses to consistently find an appropriate host from which to mutate and continue spreading. In order to expand, industrial agriculture requires deforestation, thereby closing the gap between viruses and human communities. At the same time, the industry’s focus on growing genetic monocultures (i.e. livestock and plants with nearly identical genomes), in conjunction with overcrowding, creates conditions whereby ‘pathogens now can just quicky evolve around the commonplace host-immune genotype’ (51). The industry’s emphasis on high throughput provides a continually renewed supply of susceptible plant and animal life to facilitate the virus’s growth. Moreover, because the age of slaughter is low (and increasingly lowered), viruses that can survive more robust immune systems are likely to fair better and spread faster. Finally, the vast network of agricultural exports and imports across vast regions, even across countries, grants potential viruses unprecedented mobility and contact with humans. As Wallace writes, ‘[t]he capital-led agriculture that replaces more natural ecologies offers the exact means by which pathogens can evolve the most virulent and infectious phenotypes’ (34).

Dead Epidemiologists is a collection of twelve essays, blog posts and interviews that Wallace has written (or co-authored) about the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing especially on the role of industrial agriculture. The first chapter, ‘Notes on a Novel Coronavirus’, lays the groundwork for the entire book. The essay, written before the outbreak was officially declared a pandemic in the US, examines how neoliberalism undermines the ability of public health initiatives to address the structural causes of outbreaks. Instead, epidemiologists and public health experts are limited to responding to the problems that the system creates after the fact (e.g. pollution, ecological degradation, deforestation and even outbreaks), while simultaneously having to defend the system’s (subpar) biocontrol mechanisms. The second chapter, an interview entitled ‘Agribusiness Would Risk Millions of Deaths’, discusses a range of topics, including pandemic skepticism, the role of industrial agriculture and the vulnerabilities of poor laborers during (and before) the pandemic. Here, Wallace briefly discusses how greater farmer autonomy, strategic rewilding, permitting animals to breed on-site, among other factors, can create a sustainable system of agriculture. The third chapter, ‘COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital’, is an essay co-authored with Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves, Rodrick Wallace and Kenichi Okamoto. In addition to providing the most detailed account of the relationship between viral outbreaks and industrial agriculture, the authors also describe some of the factors that conceal the relationship. Among these is the emphasis on absolute geographies rather than relational geographies. That is, research into where future deadly pathogens are most likely to emerge tend to mark places like China, India, Indonesia and parts of Latin America and Africa as the most likely. This allows for public health experts and politicians to continue to blame the ‘dirty’ cultural practices of the global poor and nonwhite. However, a relational perspective, one that tracks how outbreaks abroad are facilitated by foreign capital, places New York, London and Hong Kong as the world’s greatest disease hotspots. Of course, this error is no accident. Such research is routinely funded by agribusiness.

The fourth chapter, ‘Internationalism Must Sweep Away Globalization’, discusses the US response to the pandemic compared to that of China and Cuba. For Wallace, indicative of an empire in its decline, the US is unable to adequately response to the problems capitalism generates. At best, it can only project power. This is why, for instance, some politicians early into the pandemic proposed letting the virus run rampant until herd immunity was achieved. This rhetoric transforms political ineffectiveness into a political decision that party politics then disguises as sound policy. China, which Wallace describes as endorsing ‘state capitalism’, is at the start of its capital accumulation process and thus still able to respond to the problems its system generates. Moreover, the robust healthcare systems of countries like China and Cuba have allowed them to protect their citizens, while also enabling them to send doctors overseas to combat outbreaks internationally. The fifth chapter, ‘The Kill Floor’, examines the impact of meatpacking processes on viral outbreaks. In particular, it explores how corporations, government agencies like the USDA and politicians have worked in tandem to endanger the health and safety of factory workers to the benefit of corporate executives. Chapter six, ‘Square Roots’, examines the sharp differences between regenerative agriculture and industrial agriculture, and the incompatibility of the former with capitalism.

The seventh chapter, ‘Midvinter-19’ (after the 2019 film Midsommar), examines what Wallace refers to as the ‘pandemic theater’ of COVID-19. Such spectacles may take on multiple forms, whether China versus the US (e.g. is China responsible? Has the US done enough to stop the virus?), or government versus science (e.g. did COVID-19 originate in a lab? Are public health and medical professionals being honest with the public?). While these debates take center stage, the true public health threat of capitalism and neoliberalism remain concealed. The next chapter, ‘Blood Machines’, takes an initially unexpected turn to the horseshoe crab industry. Here, Wallace briefly examines the ecological and metabolic rifts caused by medical and pharmaceutical industries that exploit organic resources to create vaccines – vaccines that will be necessary because of the environmental degradation that such industries produce in the first place. Chapter nine, ‘The Origins of Industrial Agricultural Pathogens’, was co-authored with Alex Liebman, David Weisberger, Tammi Jonas, Luke Bergmann, Richard Kock and Rodrick Wallace. It explores how agricultural production has changed alongside processes of capital accumulation to become an invasive, unsustainable and destructive force upon ecosystems. More specifically, on their view, modern agriculture perceives biodiversity as a potential threat to its bottom line – one that must be controlled and regulated via a series of pest management, genetically engineered monocultures and even lab-grown simulacrums. Chapter ten, ‘Pandemic Research for the People’, briefly outlines the central questions and concerns of the Pandemic Research for the People (PReP) project. As Wallace writes, ‘[t]he project is a crowd-funded effort aimed at immediately getting research efforts underway to answer questions that will help communities around the world during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic’ (130).

In chapter eleven, ‘The Bright Bulbs’, Wallace and his co-author, Max Ajl, examine a series of bad takes surrounding the pandemic. The bulk of the chapter focuses on the growing approval of lab-grown meat in Western societies. Given the emphasis placed on Chinese wet markets in accounts of COVID-19’s origins, many have begun viewing these artificial meats as a means of minimizing the threat of contagion. This perspective, however, is flawed on a few levels. For instance, the amount of electricity, plastics and even organic materials (e.g. fetal cow blood is oftentimes used to make lab meat) makes the process unsustainable, especially if we are to successfully combat the growing threat of climate change. Likewise, and ironically, this discussion positions agribusiness – the industry responsible for these outbreaks – as society’s saviors. It is they who will save the planet by developing these ‘wondrous’ and ‘safe’ alternatives. Indeed, the irony runs so deep that, on this view, sustainable indigenous practices of growing meat are viewed as obstacles that must be eliminated as we transition to the fake meat world order. In the final chapter, ‘Into the Bat Cave’, Wallace and Deborah Wallace examine the surprising parallels between SARS-CoV-2 and the reproductive cycle of the horseshoe bat. For instance, the greater mortality and hospitalizations rate of people born males appears to mirror the role that viruses may play among polyandrous horseshoe bats. As Wallace and Wallace explain, given that only a few male bats are needed to impregnate a large number of females, viruses may function to cull males during times of severe resource constraints. While they admit that such comparisons are always limited, they contend that they may nevertheless reveal ‘how SARS may have made its living coevolving with bats and once in humans merely rides a shared physiological mechanism [i.e. the similar protein structures of ACE2 receptors in both male humans and male horseshoe bats] to a different of epidemiological success’ (163).

Overall, Dead Epidemiologists is a timely and important book. Not only does it provide a necessary intervention into debates surrounding COVID-19, but offers us a much needed perspective from which to assess just how vulnerable to outbreaks the present system of capitalism makes us. Those looking for a rigorous and systematic academic analysis about the origins of COVID-19 may be disappointed by Wallace’s more direct and to-the-point approach. While the book is certainly not devoid of such analysis, it oftentimes speaks more plainly than academic jargon is wont to allow. Yet, in my view, this is one of the book’s biggest strengths. It makes the book accessible, and that accessibility is going to be important if we, as a global community, are to tackle the problem that Wallace and his colleagues articulate. Moreover, the directness of his argument ultimately serves to underscore how basic and obvious the problem really is. Yes, a more complicated account could be provided, and it could help shed important conceptual light on the intricate machinations of racial capitalism, animal welfare, neoliberalism, environmentalism and public health in Westernized modes of food production. However, such an analysis would ultimately reach the same conclusion: industrial agriculture poses a perpetual public health risk.

At its core, this book is about more than just the origins of COVID-19. It sheds crucial light on the origins of past, present and – if we continue to rely upon destructive and unsustainable capitalist agriculture – future outbreaks. A simple reform will not solve the problem. A consumer-friendly switch to lab-grown meat will not solve the problem. Eliminating wet markets and regulating the dietary habits of those in so-called ‘Third’ World countries will not solve the problem. As Wallace writes, ‘let’s choose an ecosocialism that mends the metabolic rift between ecology and economy, and between the urban and the rural and wilderness, keeping the worst of these pathogens from emerging in the first place. Let’s choose international solidarity with everyday people the world over. Let’s realize a creaturely communism far from the Soviet model. Let’s braid together a new world system, indigenous liberation, farmer autonomy, strategic rewilding, and place-specific agroecologies that redefining biosecurity, reintroduce immune firebreaks of widely diverse varieties in livestock, poultry, and crops’ (28-29).

26 August 2021

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