Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of Covid-19

Author: Rob Wallace
Publ: Monthly Review Press. 2020. Pp 266. ISBN eBook: 978-158367-904-3

In a complex and detailed collection of essays that span the period of January through July 2020, Dead Epidemiologists asks a deceptively simple question: what are the origins of COVID-19? To demonstrate the complexity and depth of the question and possible answers, epidemiologist Rob Wallace takes us on a journey examining how we came to be dealing with COVID-19, that include investigations of viral spread, viral host biology, global agricultural systems, systems of discrimination, global capitalism, nationalistic science, environmental destruction and bats. In so doing, he argues that the answer to the question of the origins of COVID-19 is structural.  That is to say, it is produced by us – all of us and our acceptance and engagement in global networks of capitalism.  This global capitalism has structured our agriculture and our environment in ways that enhance the crossover of virus from other animals to humans and then easily spread the crossed-over virus around the world. Understood this way, COVID-19 is neither unique nor surprising.  Rather, it was just a matter of time, as is any other viral pandemic that thrives in the same structure.

At the heart of his critique are multinational corporate food production systems that rely on intensification of genetic monocultures in livestock and crops, of density and population size, of industrial production and of the capitalization of wild products. Basically, diversity and nature both slow transmission and impede infection but we have intensified systems that limit diversity and nature. Globalization is at the heart of the problem. Not only is global capitalism driving the encroachment on diverse wild spaces (be it through specific forms of agriculture or natural resource extraction) but globalism is also transporting infected animals and humans around the world at record speeds.

Dead Epidemiologists offers us the opportunity to readjustment our conceptual sights to focus on ‘the processes by which increasingly capitalized landscapes turn living organisms into commodities and entire production chains—animal, producer, processor, and retailer—into disease vectors’ (89).  As such, it argues that it is not enough to develop an effective vaccine or even find a cure.  For the next virus is just around the corner.  Or to use a better metaphor, the next virus has already left the forest. Wallace proposes instead to look at the role of capitalist production systems. Specifically, he argues that, ‘scientific approaches have selectively overlooked the role of capitalist production—its mechanization, simplification, geographical reordering, and incessant spatiotemporal movement—as a causal factor in the production of invasive species’ (127). Thus, reacting to the pandemic is insufficient because it is already too late once a pandemic has started. Rather than emergency interventions we need structural interventions around power and production. ‘Failure to address structural problems can render these very emergency interventions ineffectual’ (22).  So, what can we do? Are there other futures possible?

This book is not only an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 but a reframing of the perspectives by which we imagine a post-COVID future. That is, a future that will contain the endless risk, or rather, I believe Wallace would argue, the guarantee of repetition unless we seriously consider if another world is possible. In order to create this new world, the book argues that we need to move beyond emergency reactions to viral transmission and reconsider the way our world is structured. We need to build and sustain collectivities and practices that move beyond maintaining the present structure of power and accumulation.

Rather than a return to normal, this book is a cry echoing the call of La Via Campesina, that another world is possible. Wallace posits the reintroduction, preservation and enhancement of natural impediments to viral spread – maintenance of forest, a diverse and diversified agriculture, a change in production mechanisms, regeneration of local and regional ecosystems and the cessation of land grabs of forests and small holder farms. Wallace argues for rewilding, regenerative agriculture and dis-alienation as a solution to the current epidemiological problem. ‘In doing so, we converge on immediate solutions. We protect the forest complexity that keeps deadly pathogens from lining up hosts for a straight shot onto the world’s travel network. We reintroduce the livestock and crop diversities, and reintegrate animal and crop farming at scales that keep pathogens from ramping up in virulence and geographic extent. We allow our food animals to reproduce onsite, restarting the natural selection that allows immune evolution to track pathogens in real time.’ (57). This would mean arresting forest encroachment and reworking land use to break a chain of transmission. But this is not an easy solution for it threatens the endless expansion of neo-liberal capitalist production and is vigorously opposed by the very corporations and governments that produced our virus transmitting systems in the first place.

In March 2020 the world was brutally shocked into the devastating medical, economic, social, psychological and political consequences of COVID-19 that we are still struggling to deal with a year later. The shock alone should have made us question the world in which we live. One would think that a book written in the middle of 2020 could not offer new insight into the global pandemic today. Nevertheless, a year on, Dead Epidemiologists is indeed a timely, urgent and important contribution to understanding COVID-19 and reimagining post-COVID futures.

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