Rob Wallace on the political economy of pandemics
By Rob Wallace, Jipson John, and Jitheesh P. M.
June 19, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from MR Online — Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and a public health phylogeographer based in the United States. His writings have attracted international attention owing to the outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Wallace is one among a few epidemiologists who, since the turn of this century, have been warning the world about the outbreak of deadly pandemics. His writings challenge the orthodox understanding of the origin and spread of infectious diseases. He goes deep and unearths the sociological reasons behind the spillover of dangerous pathogens from wildlife reservoirs to human habitats. He writes: “The cause of COVID-19 and other such pathogens is not found just in the object of any one infectious agent or its clinical course, but also in the field of ecosystemic relations that capital and other structural causes have pinned back to their own advantage.” Wallace and his colleagues raise a radical critique of the capitalist mode of production. As an epidemiologist, he has also researched the spillover of some of the other deadly infectious diseases of our times, including Ebola, Zika and swine flu (H1N1 flu). Wallace has produced an extensive research output on how big farms, free trade agreements, global capital circuits and deforestation cause “Big Flu” and other deadly pandemics.
Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19, written by Wallace and a series of co-authors, is one of the most eclectic books on the origins of the current pandemic. “The COVID-19 pandemic shocked the world. It shouldn’t have. Since this century’s turn, epidemiologists have warned of new infectious diseases. Yet, despite their own warnings, many of the researchers appear unable to understand the true nature of the disease—as if they are dead to what they ‘have seen’,” he writes in the book. Instead, he reveals “the hidden-in-plain-sight truth behind the pandemic: global capital drove the deforestation and development that exposed us to new pathogens”.
Wallace’s 2016 book Big Farms Make Big Flu is as compelling as its title. The author Mike Davis said in a review of the book: “Using the wide-angle lens of political ecology, Rob Wallace demonstrates the central roles of the factory-farming and fast-food industries in the evolution of avian flu and other pandemics that threaten the entire planet.”
When swine flu broke out in 2009, Wallace produced many writings in which he called it the NAFTA flu, linking it to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Here, he reveals the interconnection between a neoliberal free trade agreement and the circuit of capital and pathogens. Wallace says that agribusiness is at war with public health and the way forward is for humanity to reconcile with planetary metabolism.
Wallace received a PhD in biology at the Graduate Centre of The City University of New York and did postdoctoral work at the University of California, Irvine with Walter Fitch, a founder of molecular phylogeny. He is currently an evolutionary epidemiologist with the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps. He has consulted with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation and the U.S.’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Wallace is a co-author of the book Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection.
This is his first interview with the Indian media, and he speaks on the origins and future of COVID-19, the case for universal vaccination, agribusiness and public health, capital circuits, the spillover of pathogens and the future of humanity.
The world has been living with the coronavirus for more than a year now. Although different vaccines are available, countries have still failed to contain the virus. What do you think about the future?
COVID-19 will likely continue to slosh around for years to come, evolving new variants. The pathogen eventually may attenuate to a less deadly clinical course, but it may take years, even decades. The danger of the virus is that we can’t predict its evolution. That’s why we must bring down the hammer of global solidarity to block the virus from what appears its repeated egress as it finds one susceptible population after another. China first. The U.S. yesterday (and in its poorest parts still today even with the vaccine). India and Brazil today (without widespread vaccination), maybe other countries in the global South tomorrow. Then back to China and the U.S. Working together the world over is our only option.
That flight plan doesn’t even speak to the other SARS-like [severe acute respiratory syndrome] coronaviruses gearing up (one or two of which are even now likely already starting to circulate in human populations). Or the next Ebola strain. Or Nipah virus. Or African swine fever. Or, our old friends, avian and swine influenza.
Capitalism drives both ends of the process. Global expropriation drives the land use and deforestation leading to the disease spillover events plaguing us with novel deadly pathogens. And it drives the refusal to protect millions of people with biomedical prophylaxes and the simplest of non-pharmaceutical [interventions] like masks and paid time off from work. Populations are treated as mere markets. And markets that can’t pay for medical commodities (or vacation time) aren’t thought of as people.
Pathogens shrug their shoulders at such omissions. The bugs infect anyone capital refuses to protect, only to splash back into even the wealthiest. [Brazil’s President Jair] Bolsonaro, [former U.S. President Donald] Trump, [the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister] Boris Johnson and such leaders across the world are malicious miscreants, convening necropolitical death cults. But the alternatives, also tied to capitalist sociopathy, are only a little bit better. Our “progressives” worship at the altar of the circuits of capital.
The god of capital
Could you please explain what you mean by that last sentence?
If worship is expressing obedience or adoration to a deity, then many a liberal bows to the god of capital. Capitalism is the dark star around which all bourgeois politics—from liberalism to the nastiest fascism—orbits. Capital isn’t just a point of reference. It acts on people moment to moment in the every day. To add another metaphor, capital is like an acid. It eats through all human relations, contracting even the family as a means by which to reproduce the labour force. While all well and good on their own terms, human rights, individualistic humanism and parliamentarianism emerged largely as bargaining chips by which a variety of populations that objected to being treated as chattel—from feudal peasants turned into an unmoored army of labour to former slaves and the millions dispossessed of their land by primitive accumulation—could be folded back into production. Such expropriation is treated as if [it is] the natural order of things.
Many scholars, even before Marx, described the social origins of such an order. That work continues. Among the more recent scholarship, the sociologist Marc Aziz Michael described the hard work that went into training millions of people the world over into accepting their dispossession by the market as if [it was] a visceral instinct like hunger or the libido. It took three centuries to get everyday people to accept such evisceration. Money itself took over the biological imperative of reproduction, placing itself first before even millions of people’s very lives. To grasp that foundational point, India needs only to look around its own pandemic ruins as [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and [Home Minister] Amit Shah, yes, but also, as the historian Tithi Bhattacharya describes it, all the way back through to the INC [Indian National Congress] and CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] pushed back against their own constituents by placing accumulation before the social commons.
Do you expect a more intensive wave of infection to come? How optimistic are you about the various vaccine development programmes and vaccination?
The future of COVID-19 is bright and shiny. The virus has many more millions of people to infect. The vaccines developed do work, but the countries of the global North are more willing to protect their corporate patents than to protect humanity by getting the world inoculated as fast as possible. Even as the vaccines were developed in part by testing them on people of the global South.
As the various variants evolve and spread, they’re already showing themselves capable of evolving resistance to the vaccines. The B.1.351 variant [documented first in South Africa and called the Beta variant according to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) new nomenclature] is nearly entirely resistant to the AstraZeneca vaccine and somewhat against the Pfizer vaccine. P.1 in Brazil [the Gamma variant] is also showing some resistance to the Pfizer vaccine. Most Americans polled agree that the vaccine ingredients and recipes should be handed over for generic development in India and elsewhere. But the American people don’t necessarily run their government. It’s more governance by the corporation for the corporation.
Such machinations explain why epidemiologists make a distinction between vaccine efficaciousness and vaccine efficiency. The former speaks to whether the vaccine works in the body. The latter speaks to whether the vaccine works in the body politic. Can we deliver the vaccine worldwide? Under rapacious capitalism, the answer appears no.
Case for universal vaccination
At present, a few vaccines have been made available. Vaccination drives are going on everywhere. Nearly everyone on this planet needs to get vaccinated to get rid of the COVID-19 threat. So, according to you, what is the importance of having a universal vaccination policy to address the crisis? As you mentioned in your previous answer, certain countries of the global North make an issue of the vaccine “patent”. How do you look at it? What more is needed at this time regarding vaccines and their availability to everyone on this planet?
Universal vaccination is critical on two counts. First, on its face alone, getting everyone a vaccine now that we’ve converged on what works is a matter of global justice. Everyone has the right to beat COVID-19, especially with something relatively simple: two [jabs]in the arm. Vaccines aren’t the only way to protect populations, of course. Governments are responsible for helping beat back a virus even when a medical prophylaxis isn’t available. A variety of governments, whatever their faults, chose to place their populations’ well-being first and successfully implemented “hammer” interventions: bringing the hammer down on outbreaks with strict lockdowns, mask mandates and contact tracing and case isolation. In a matter of weeks, their outbreaks were placed under control. Other governments chose their economies first; that is, they chose the billionaire profits they’ve long organised around as their prime directive. Most of such countries ended up losing both lives and money. As it turns out, feeding people into COVID’s maw wasn’t good economics.
It also turns out that failing to deliver on the logistics of non-pharmaceutical interventions likely means failing the logistics of delivering vaccines. Vaccine effectiveness extends far beyond whether the thing stuck in your arm works on any individual patient. Effectiveness is a population measure and depends on a country’s public health infrastructure and institutional cognition: how a country makes decisions about a crisis and delivers solutions to its populace. Neoliberal and rightist models of governance are organised around stripping out that capacity.
The other reason universal vaccination is necessary seems more on the technical side but in actuality is a variation on the theme of global justice. By definition pandemics don’t respect borders, so a continuing outbreak anywhere serves as a threat everywhere. SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 virus, is evolving into a starburst of variants, with many of the new ones showing an increasing capacity to replicate in the face of vaccine protection. Presently, most of the vaccines can handle most of the variants. For those strains that are evolving out from underneath, the vaccines are still keeping a far majority of those infected from getting really sick. That’s great. But, as we touched on, some of the vaccines are having trouble with some of the variants.
And this is likely to continue as a trend to the surprise of no one who studies influenza and other fast-evolving RNA viruses. We need yearly boosters for human influenza as the virus evolves through its antigenic cartography out from underneath the previous year’s protection. In an effort to push back against anti-vax propaganda, public health officials risk imposing some of their own propaganda. Yes, the vaccines work, but it’s a dynamic situation that requires close scrutiny. And even as SARS-CoV-2 isn’t as fast an evolver as influenza, that so many people are still getting infected provides the virus a large pool through which it can explore its genetic possibilities.
The patents on vaccines that were developed with public funding are as detrimental to the fight against COVID as they are shameful. President [Joe] Biden has signalled his willingness to ask the World Trade Organisation to waive rules on the vaccine’s intellectual property rights, but that doesn’t mean the E.U. [European Union] will agree or that lobbyists across sectors, including beyond pharmaceuticals, won’t succeed in blocking the precedence such a switch would represent. Presently, the U.S. administration is promising 80 million vaccines to the world, including 60 million AstraZeneca dosages the U.S. refused to give to the American people, out of a factory that has had a terrible safety record. On a planet approaching 8 billion people, 80 million doesn’t seem such a large number. And even a patent waiver doesn’t include the inputs and technical assistance necessary to allow India’s world-famous generic pharmaceutical plants to kick in and supply the world.
On the other end, India has its own problems as that sector is starting to gravitate towards profits for the few. There was also a snafu that only a failure of planning could produce. India itself appears to be acting as a bottleneck on universal vaccination. Failing to project its own country’s vaccine needs upon the awful outbreak, India started grabbing up what COVAX, the WHO effort [with others to ensure an equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines], ordered from domestic manufacturers for other countries in the global South. Now India has placed those countries at the back of the vaccine queue.
Big picture, a stumble of the global vaccine campaign allows the growing diversity of COVID variants to conduct experiments on the immune systems of the millions of people as yet unvaccinated. And if there remains a large pool of people unvaccinated, then the virus has the capacity to continue to circulate above the population of replacement in such a way that it can also continue to circulate among those who arevaccinated. Yes, transmission is less likely across those vaccinated, but it isn’t zero, and breakthrough cases are being recorded, in which those fully vaccinated are getting sick. Meaning their viral loads are increasing to a transmission threshold, as appears to be the case when a whole clubhouse of New York Yankees, the baseball team, was infected even while fully vaccinated.
We can only close down COVID’s experimentation by precipitously dropping the number of “labs” it’s running. So vaccinate everyone, enforce sensible mask mandates, institute paid lockdowns when necessary and follow up with contact tracing and sick pay and hazard pay and rent moratoriums. In other words, social justice is a foundational part of successful epidemiological intervention, from blocking the emergence of pathogens to begin with to controlling those that break on through as pandemics.
Justice isn’t some side project the Right gets to roll its eyes at (or worse, destroy). Reality is rejecting the capitalist model in real time. The global North can’t just pretend it can sequester the damage of expropriationist production along the equator. The damage, pandemics and climate change, is turning up everywhere all at once. Such dangers can only be addressed in acts of solidarity that are premised on the notion that the health of any one patient is dependent upon the health of all.
Epidemiologists like you were warning of the emerging threats of zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19, caused by deadly pathogens for some years. Still, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, even the most advanced countries were ill-equipped to face the challenge. Is it because the ruling establishment failed to take serious note of scientific warnings?
On its face, science centres on capturing the nature of reality in a systemic way. That reality includes science’s role, largely ignored, in propping up political power. When the rationales of the gods were found in the dynamics of the planet and stars, even physics bent its knee to local priests and lords. In the West, Galileo [Galilei], [Rene] Descartes, [Isaac] Newton and [Charles] Darwin—the giants upon whose shoulders we stand—stooped over upon threat of jail or ostracisation. Perhaps that’s why we can’t see far, including upon infectious diseases staring back at us dead in our faces.
It wasn’t just a matter of political discipline, however. From the geographer Jason Moore and other world-systems theorists, we learn that from the Portuguese’s arrival upon Madeira’s “commodity frontier” off Africa in 1419 onwards, a particular scientific practice stepped up in political economy, offering the means of organising newly encountered labour power and decoding (and recoding) nature off-continent for capital accumulation. New sciences have since regularly emerged to help set up and service each of capitalism’s subsequent iterations: mercantilist, the slave trade, monopoly, the factory, multinational, finance, neoliberal, biotech, information, surveillance and combinations thereof, all in turn attempting to trade off on science’s gravitas.
Epidemiology played a key role in colonialist expansion, making the global South safe for the expropriation that helped spring many a pathogen from its hinterland margins on to regional and global stages: malaria, rinderpest, trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis and HIV, among others. Europeans meanwhile spread influenza, typhus, smallpox, measles and cholera
Little has changed but the scale in time and space. Today, non-profit outfits like the EcoHealth Alliance in New York take millions in aid from corporate donors and the U.S. Department of Defence to place blame for the new wave of outbreaks emerging from the deforestation and development that capital finances on to indigenous groups and small farmers. These two groups often represent the last resistance to corporate- and finance-led land grabs. New pathogens can now spill over in the deepest forest, spread swiftly along the peri-urban circuit to a local regional capital and make it on an airplane for cocktails on Miami Beach in a matter of weeks.
What I’m getting at here is that why would the ruling establishment pay heed to warnings from the sciences it has always paid to help clean up outbreaks of its own making? Why let a few stray egghead curmudgeons—the scientists that are ignored at the beginning of every disaster movie—undercut the very source of the bourgeoisie’s power? “Everyone” knows infectious disease is a global South problem. It’s part of the cost of enriching the white and wealthy to be left off along the equator to the tune of millions of deaths a year. The “surprise” is built into the global capitalist system as a prime directive.
Field theory of COVID-19 origins
COVID-19 was first reported in China and then spread all over the world. A strong case was made for the theory that the virus initially spread from the Wuhan seafood market. But there is also another argument or allegation that the virus leaked from a virology laboratory in Wuhan. What do you think about the origins of the novel coronavirus?
The case for COVID-19 origins in Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market is weak. Only 40 per cent of positive samples in the market were found in market streets where wildlife were housed. A quarter of the original human infectees never visited the market or appeared directly exposed. Some of the genetic evidence rolling in appears instead to support the possibility that COVID-19 was circulating in humans for years before the Wuhan outbreak. I’m a supporter of this kind of field theory of COVID-19’s origins.
That set of hypotheses suggests the virus emerged in the course of circulating out of encroached-upon populations of horseshoe bats in central and south China—along the lines of the land use origins we already spoke of—and into local populations of traditional livestock, wild food animals and the labour that tend them. Even now, the various coronaviruses are conducting thousands, if not millions, of experiments across non-bat species, in the course of which they are learning how to crack the human immune system. COVID-19 may have done so over the course of several years on its way to Wuhan.
There is an alternative hypothesis. The lab leak theory presumes a SARS-like strain escaped out the back door of one of the two governmental biosafety labs in Wuhan, not far from the Huanan Market. There are some terribly gauche versions of the theory we can dismiss. Trumpists and their liberal opponents here in the U.S. both love to bash China. And then can’t understand why Asian Americans are getting beaten up in the streets here. But there are more credible versions of the hypothesis. I’ve unpacked one of the better versions, pointing out its various problems (and promises). But against the recent WHO report, which the WHO’s own leadership rejected, I don’t think a lab leak beyond the realm of extreme possibility.
In 2013, a Princeton University team mapped the expansive wave of new biosafety labs built since 9/11 and, earlier, H5N1, the first of the century’s celebrity viruses. The team showed [that] thousands of BSL-3 [biosafety level] and -4 labs working on some of the world’s deadliest pathogens have been built, often with little regulation, in or near some of the world’s major cities, including Wuhan, Pune and Bhopal. When given such increasing opportunity, the risk of such a rare event bends toward inevitability. That doesn’t mean that a lab leak is what happened in Wuhan. It just means that the lab leak theory is indeed a possibility worth greater investigation even as I remain a proponent of the field theory of COVID-19’s origins.
Spillover from ‘neoliberal frontiers’
You have argued that “Some pathogens emerge right out of centres of production. Food-borne bacteria such as Salmonella and Campylobacter come to mind. But many like COVID-19 originate on the frontiers of capital production.” Could you explain this?
Pathogens emerge in different ways depending upon the species, place and commodity. But all now are connected within the same web of environmental damage and global expropriation, which explains the cross-continental nature of new pathogens. SARS in China. MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome] in the Middle East [West Asia]. Zika in Brazil. H5Nx in Europe. Swine flu in North America. And it isn’t just industrialising agriculture. Dam and irrigation construction drives malaria outbreaks in India and elsewhere.
Extractive capitalism is finding its way into the last of the rainforests and savannahs, anywhere, really, that hasn’t been looped into a circuit of production. And where global capital finds resistance, it sicks the state on those indigenous [people] and smallholders who resist. One thinks of Operation Green Hunt [in Chhattisgarh] and bauxite in the hills of Odisha. As a result the world is ringed by a daisy chain of these regional circuits of production. Each circuit typically runs from the deepest forest through the peri-urban continuum to a local regional capital. Monoculture agriculture, mining and logging gouge the circuit along the way. The people living there are pushed out or proletarianised into cheap labour.
At forest edges subjected to development, what geographers call the “neoliberal frontier”, novel zoonotic pathogens are spilling over out of previously marginalised reservoirs of wild hosts and, as we previously described, into local livestock, wild food animals and the farm workers or wranglers who tend them. Some diseases such as the Nipah virus [infection], coronavirus [infections] and Ebola spill at these points of disruption. Previous ecologies that marginalised these pathogens to a select few hosts are unplugged and then reconnected in such a way that the pathogens have new exits out through the circuit of production they didn’t have before. The pathogens make their way to a regional capital and some to the world.
Other pathogens emerge at the other end of the circuit of production, in, for instance, outer-ring megafarms supplying urban centres. So, food-borne bacteria or avian influenzas, for instance, are able to surf through the thousands of poultry and livestock raised to feed urban consumers, sometimes picking up in deadliness barn to barn, before spilling over into humans. Of the 39 documented transitions from low to high deadliness in avian influenzas from 1959 onwards, all but two occurred in commercial poultry operations, typically of tens or hundreds of thousands of birds. Intensive operations are so inundated with circulating avian and swine influenza that they now serve as their own reservoirs for new strains. Populations of wild waterfowl are no longer the only source.
COVID-19’s origins are something of a mixture of these two ends of our circuits of production, the forest and the industrial farm. Coronaviruses are hosted by bats around the world. But the strains that horseshoe bats host in China appear to hit humans worse once they successfully jump species. That wasn’t a problem until recently. The environment in which these bats live has changed in foundational ways.
Upon its economic liberalisation post-Mao [Zedong], China undertook the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] route of development, intent on feeding its own people with its own natural resources. Millions were pulled out of poverty. Millions were left behind. Pro or con, in taking this course, Chinese agribusiness and an increasingly capitalised wild foods sector cut into the landscape of central and south China where many of these bat populations are located. As with Ebola, the interfaces among the bats, livestock, wild food animals, farmers and miners on this commodity frontier expanded, boosting the traffic of various SARS-like coronaviruses.
Systemic reasons for pandemic
The mainstream view treats each new virus attack as a purely biological phenomenon detached from systemic causes that underlie societal life. But you and your colleagues have written extensively about these systemic reasons. Pathogens were there in the pre-capitalist period too. Why do you call “the age of capitalism” “the age of pandemic”?
If you like the system, or benefit from it, you don’t blame the system for the damage it causes. You blame the victims or you blame the enemy or you blame the non-human. In the case of COVID-19, those in power have blamed all three. Blame poor people living crowded together instead of the failure of the state to provide adequate housing. Blame China (or Pakistan or Maoists or Muslims). Or blame the virus itself.
The last, of course, causes the infection, but pinning causality to the object involved allows those in power, and the epidemiologists who serve them, to avoid discussion of the broader political economy—the field of causality—that sets the opportunities and barriers a pathogen faces. In the end, pathogens spread much the way water flows through cracks in ice. The infrastructure of power collectively arrives at decisions about how many, and where, the cracks in societal ice emerge. And not just during a plague year or across an electoral cycle but going back decades. Do you have a well-funded national health service (which takes decades to build and billions in rupees to maintain)? Does your population have access to clean water and nutritious food? Do you have social services such that should a disaster arrive, people can shelter in place and not worry about paying bills? What kind of access to non-pharmaceutical interventions do you have in place? China, Vietnam, New Zealand, Cuba, Uruguay and Taiwan—all very different political systems—were able to initially defeat their outbreaks without a vaccine. Did India take the neoliberal or denialist route that the U.S. and Brazil took? Does that explain its present outbreak?
Yes, outbreaks have happened before. Indeed, infectious diseases have been the main source of mortality since humans began civilisation, when we moved from a migratory life into towns with population concentrations large enough to support more acute infections. But just because diseases circulated among human populations before does not mean capitalism isn’t causing novel outbreaks now.
Pathogens, like humans, have histories. They have their origins, their diasporic migration, their classical eras, Dark Ages and Industrial Revolutions. And as human pathogens evolve and spread in a world of our own making, these eras often coincide with our own. For instance, for most of its history, the cholera bacterium made its living eating plankton in the Ganges delta. Only once humanity became urbanised and, later, interwoven together by 19th century transport was cholera able to make its way to the world’s cities. The bacterium was able to transform from a marginal bug into a roaring success when municipalities began drawing drinking water from the same place they dumped their sewage.
Despite our scientific understanding and the latest [advances] in medical technology, humanity finds itself on a terrible epidemiological precipice. And it has everything to do with how we organise ourselves as societies. Our institutions are in some ways more important a prophylaxis than whatever biomedical innovation we devise, how[ever] important those remain.
Right now, neoliberal capitalism, the world’s dominant paradigm, is organised around rolling back the public commons—for instance, the water treatment that helps control cholera—in favour of limiting governance to propping up corporate productivity. That’s being done at the national level but also at the intergovernmental level. The World Bank and IMF [International Monetary Fund] demand of countries that accept loans [that they] engage in the structural adjustment that reduces domestic supports and lets multinationals in and reduces public health outlays in favour of austerity budgets. Letting multinationals off the leash leads to treating land as a source of export-led profit rather than as a regenerative bread basket that feeds millions of people generation after generation. When companies ruin a landscape—including the work that local ecologies conduct boxing in wildlife diseases that might spill over—capital moves on to the next landscape over and starts extraction all over again.
So even as the present megafarms and livestock feedlots don’t explain past outbreaks, it doesn’t mean they’re not responsible for our current batch. That’d be like arguing oil isn’t a cause for war today because the Romans never fought for it. We acknowledge our own historical trajectories. We should be able to acknowledge those of our pathogens as well. And right now, as the scientific literature shows, we are producing more documented outbreaks, extending farther and faster, as capitalists lead the way wrecking our ecologies for profit.
Your book Big Farm Makes Big Flu boldly makes the statement that “Big Food has entered a strategic alliance with inﬂuenza… agribusiness, backed by state power home and abroad, is now working as much with inﬂuenza as against it.” You also state that “agribusiness is at war with public health”. Could you elaborate?
Outrageous statements! And yet entirely defensible.
Agribusiness hasn’t purposefully brought about the emergence of many of the new pathogens but has done so as a side effect of land grabbing at the forest edge and building megafarms in the urban outer ring. In engineering production entirely around profiteering, agribusiness has engineered the very means by which the deadliest (and most infectious) pathogens are selected for.
Large populations and high concentrations of genetically similar poultry and livestock mushed together depress livestock immune systems. Such throughput also permits the pathogens that replicate fastest up to a transmission threshold to burn through all the animals in a barn or feedlot fastest, causing the worst damage along the way. By circumstances entirely of Big Ag’s imposition, the deadlier strains beat out less virulent strains.
The damage continues even after an outbreak. As livestock do not breed on-farm—most breeding is offshore at the grandparent level for market traits like fast growth—any animals that survive an outbreak can’t serve as progenitors of the next generation. That is, as food animals do not reproduce on-farm, immune resistance can’t be bred for in real time in response to a circulating pathogen. Industrial agriculture depends on vaccines and antimicrobials to protect animals. As humanity found out itself this year, vaccines often take months if not years to develop, long after outbreaks have come and gone. Antimicrobials used for largely cosmetic purposes can select for drug resistance in bacteria that spill over into humans. In short, there’s nothing biosecure about the industrial model of livestock production.
Now I said that agribusiness didn’t purposefully produce these outbreaks, but it certainly takes advantage of crises of its own making. When a poultry or livestock outbreak splatters across the landscape, it’s largely governments at a variety of jurisdictions, the farm worker, the taxpayer, the consumer and local wildlife that suffer the worst of damage. It’s always someone else who picks up the tab for the outbreak. Why would agribusiness change its operations if it can externalise this damage? Without the costs of an outbreak moved back on to company balance sheets, the industrial model marches on.
The fallout turns from neglect to malicious intent. In a kind of bioeconomic warfare, when pathogens spread from industrial farms or processing plants to smallholder operations, the virus can damage agribusiness’ smaller competitors. As has been documented from the U.S. to Thailand, when such spread happens, the industrial sector demands of governments that tightened biosecurity be made the law of the land. Often only the largest companies can afford such practices: for instance, outlawing open-air flocks or microchipping every individual poultry. The diseases that wipe out Big Ag’s smaller competitors are used to cripple them between outbreaks.
So, in that sense, influenza and other pathogens have some of the world’s most powerful lawyers working for them. As the agribusiness model is protected, even expanded, upon an outbreak, nothing is done to roll back pathogen success both locally and on the global stage. In that sense agribusiness is fundamentally at war with public health. And, with new deadly pathogens emerging and public health infrastructure rolled back by austerity budgets and structural adjustment, agribusiness is winning that battle.
GM crops and monocultures
The introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops and monocultures has many champions in India. Monsanto has already entered the scene in the country. Apart from the corporatisation of agriculture aspect, you have pointed out the problem with growing genetic monocultures in terms of the removal of immune firebreaks. What are the challenges in terms of the spillover and spread of pathogens?
The epidemiological damage that monoculture livestock represents is also found in crops, including in a waste of energetics, the millions of acres produced specifically to feed these livestock. Monoculture permits crop pests and weeds to sweep across a region. Companies force farmers into ratchets of production—one input leads to another input which leads to another input—that require farmers to pay out almost the entirety of their revenue on pesticides and herbicides to try to beat back a problem of the companies’ own making.
A more mosaic landscape of crops and livestock can serve as a kind of natural barricade against such pests and pathogens. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ever any outbreaks or infestations, but well-managed agrobiodiversities, expansive in space and time, set combinatorial puzzles that any one virulent pathogen or pest on a short replication clock can’t solve in time. Often only the “weaker” pathogens can afford the delays imposed by such puzzles, leading them to act as a kind of natural vaccination that boxes out the more deadly variants.
The challenge is entirely at the level of governance and the farmer autonomy that companies aim to gut or monetise. Rural communities that are able to drive out usurious integrators and end buyers can support cooperatives that reduce both the kinds of inputs needed and the prices of those still required. Regional planning by governments and local farmer associations together can enact, and fine-tune, the mosaics needed to best control pathogens and pests well beyond the farm gate.
In describing efforts in agroecological Cuba, the ecologist Richard Levins describes the ways the scale of farming can be tailored to the social needs, ecological and topographic realities and resource availabilities of a region. Riverine buffers and afforestation and cover crops and trap crops can promote the natural emergence of ecosystem services that feed and protect cash crops and food animals at minimal cost. Clean water. Birds that feed on pests. Healthy soils. Regional planning turns farmers from isolated economic actors into participants in a public commons that can be found only in shared fate.
Along the way, a regional food system also selects for a more diverse array of agricultural occupations—say, local abattoirs and food processing—that helps keep revenue circulating in the region instead of being sucked out to multinational headquarters on the other side of the world. The community control needed to implement the most practical interventions to stop the emergence of the worst of pathogens also stops rural areas from being treated as little else than agribusiness sacrifice zones.
India already knows how to do this. Such efforts are long a part of India’s history. They are part of India’s present. Tarun Bharat Sangh, a local voluntary organisation in Rajasthan, initiated a watershed restoration programme that grew to a thousand villages. The organisation rebuilt johads, [which are] traditional mud barriers for collecting water that recharge groundwater, improve forest growth and conserve water for irrigation and for wildlife, livestock and domestic use. The efforts, coordinated by village councils, restored the Arvari river—dry since the 1940s—as well as native bird populations.
You have done a study on how “a series of multinational-based commodity countries, flexibly embedded across ecologies and political borders, are producing new epidemiologies along the way”. Please share with us the details and examples about the role of multinational corporations in this.
Governments still drive land acquisition and trade access, but a new territoriality is emerging in parallel. Some agribusinesses are restructuring operations to stretch over country borders. For instance, there’s a series of “soybean republics” arrayed across Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil as if those countries’ governments have only tangential input upon the decision-making across their own borders. Like a starfish that inverts its stomach to feed, corporations are exceeding the scope of the nations that chartered them into existence. The new geography is accompanied by changes in company management structure, capitalisation, subcontracting, supply chain substitutions, leasing and transnational land pooling. Distances are measured more in money than in miles. It’s like finance is treated as if it is more real than the biophysical landscape upon which our actual ecologies depend.
Those strange geometries reorient the spatial organisation of operations and labour pools. The face of a landscape changes, of course. In Brazil, large-scale crops of pesticide-heavy, export-oriented soybean, sugarcane and maize and, in pastures, cattle, have driven expansions in commodity production, while smallholder staples such as rice, beans and cassava have contracted. But it isn’t just a change in crops and livestock. Decisions about the landscape are transferred from local small farmers who live where they farm to regional company managers only beholden to investors abroad and only intermittently responsive to local conditions.
The rural-urban divide so prominent in epidemiologists’ vision of disease emergence in these places also becomes upended. Yes, there remains the long-documented shift in population from rural areas to urban slums as smallholders lose access to their lands. That continues across the globe. But other circumstances are in play. New labour, tied to farming now only by wages companies pay, is also entering rural areas and driving the rapid growth of rural towns that serve as both local markets and regional hubs for global agricultural commodities passing through.
As a result, forest disease dynamics, out of which many novel human pathogens emerge, are no longer constrained to the hinterlands alone. Because the commoditised forest edge is connected to these hubs (and subsequently larger regional capitals down the commodity chain), new pathogens now have a straight shot from the deepest forest to the global travel and trade network. As we previously touched on, Ebola, yellow fever and coronaviruses suddenly threatening to go pandemic in ways they didn’t before offer clear examples.
In the other direction, dengue, typically thought an urban disease, appears pegged to characteristic areas far beyond city limits, entraining outbreaks in Ho-Chi Minh City’s peri-urban and rural environs, for instance, out to 50-100 km. The generally urban Aedes aegypti mosquito, a vector of a variety of human infections, has been found in the rural areas surrounding Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, out to 19 km. Another team found low genetic structure in that mosquito species across seven major islands of central-western Philippines, particularly across busy ports, indicating lots of cross-migration. Cargo shipments appeared a primary mode of spread in both Peru and the Philippines.
U.S., global exporter of swine flu
When the swine flu (H1N1) broke out in 2009, you called it the NAFTA flu. Could you speak about this particular case and also about the role of such trade in causing and spreading the viruses?
Under neoliberalism’s free trade push, global circuits of capital multiply in distance and connectivity. Landscape production is increasingly defined by relational geographies wherein what happens in a local landscape is tied to capital accumulation in countries halfway around the world that supplied the finance driving deforestation and development.
Such circuits are imprinting themselves on the evolution and spread of pathogens. One team of evolutionary biologists was able to infer the spatial jumps country to country as counted through all swine influenza evolutionary trees: all genomic segments, all lineages, from one location to another. The team showed that unlike for poultry and for hogs, China is not an important source of swine influenzas on the global stage as most of its hogs are purchased domestically. The U.S. on the other hand, the leading global exporter of hogs, is also the leading global exporter of swine flu.
NAFTA offered a regional example. The free trade agreement brought down the economic borders between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. U.S. agricultural companies began to dump cheap meat (and other food commodities) on to the Mexican market at a financial loss as a way of driving Mexican domestic companies out of business. That changed the way the livestock sector was structured in Mexico. Mexican operations could either wave the white flag and sell their operations to American multinationals or consolidate to grow large enough to compete with the multinationals. U.S. companies like Smithfield began to ship their own hogs into Mexico and to set up intensive piggeries down there too.
By the same technique, the team of evolutionary biologists tracked the migration events that led to the emergence of what became swine flu out of this new agriculture, showing the U.S. and Canada, seeding multiple genomic segments of that new flu in Mexican States with the greatest hog concentrations, including Jalisco, Puebla and Sonora. In other words, the notion of a NAFTA flu I proposed in 2009 was subsequently supported by the very genetic sequences of the virus itself.
We can generalise such trends. Such circuits of capital back an increasing volume of trade in live animals, produce, processed food and germplasm, helping spread zoonotic and foodborne pathogens around the world. The increasing distance food animals are shipped country to country has expanded the diversity of the genetic segments that pathogens exchange, increasing the rate and combinations over which diseases explore their evolutionary possibilities. The greater the variation in their genetics, the faster pathogens evolve. And the more likely deadlier variants are converged upon.
Blaming indigenous groups
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in China began, reports of racism and xenophobia emerged from across the world. Then Trump called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus”. Many people allege that the “uncultured” Chinese habit of eating wild meat was the reason for the virus spillover. There are similar stereotypical views when new pathogens spread in African countries. You have written about how “indigenous populations and their so-deemed ‘dirty cultural practices’ are blamed for the virus spread”. Can you speak on this?
Sure, I can speak to that. Capital’s encroachment upon the last of rainforests and savannahs for agricultural development—and mining and logging—is defined by full-spectrum expropriation. Non-human populations are in decline by virtue of the loss of their habitats but also by an expansion in the taxonomy of animals that are being trapped for their meat, organs, and skins. Declining populations of favoured animals lead to exploiting alternative resources, wiping out the natural base species by species.
Yes, bats, pangolins, civets, raccoon dogs, bamboo rats and such are being hunted, smuggled and farmed in China for traditional medicine and high-end restaurants. But it isn’t just a Chinese thing. Ostriches, porcupines, crocodiles, among many new species, are being raised on farms and trafficked worldwide. Some of the same financing backing more traditional agriculture is now backing this increasingly formalised wild foods sector. We need ask ourselves, how did the “exotic food” sector arrive at a standing where it could sell its wares alongside more traditional livestock in the largest market in Wuhan? The animals were not being sold off the back of a truck or in an alleyway.
Elsewhere, it’s been repeatedly documented that when local forestry or mining is replaced by multinational operations, local subsistence bush meat suddenly turns into a market economy to feed the labour gangs hired for the new export economies. So, long story short, wild foods aren’t just a cultural thing. They are a lucrative market now operating on economies of scale.
But Western environmental NGOs [non-governmental organisations] paid by some of the multinationals involved in some of the worst deforestation are focussing on the cultural aspect so as to redirect policy and law enforcement on indigenous groups and small farmers. These groups often represent the last remaining opposition to multinational land grabbing. Blaming them for pandemics is truly a new low in philanthro-capitalism. The EcoHealth Alliance, the New York NGO which has garnered so much attention around COVID-19 this past year, centres its work on exactly such a strategy.
Your latest book, “Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19”, offers a penetrative and alternative reading of the causes behind the origin of the pandemic. Apart from being the best political-economic ecology of pandemics, this book criticises mainstream epidemiologists, calling them Dead Epidemiologists. Are you talking about their failure to understand the structural reasons behind the origin of the pandemic?
Many epidemiologists are brilliant and hard-working and engaged in dangerous and necessary work. My own papers are filled with citations of this often thankless research. Unfortunately, many establishment scientists are also entrained into the business of cleaning up the messes left behind by the sources of their funding. From corporations to the governments that service them, the centres of power are intent on grabbing the last of the undeveloped landscapes from poor people and wild ecologies alike. The resulting damage, including an acceleration in the emergence of new diseases, is left to epidemiologists to address, as if by the time an outbreak goes regional or pandemic there’s anything any individual epidemiologist can do about it.
In an effort to both stop these outbreaks and service their lords and masters, establishment scientists, as we just touched on, turn to blaming indigenous groups and small farmers and their land use practices. That is, the scientists are punching downward on the weak and powerless. Sometimes, as in the case of the EcoHealth Alliance, it’s a cynically explicit strategy. But most epidemiologists are dead to the world, as it were, unconscious of the political economies that structure not only the circuits of capital driving land use changes, but also how their very mathematical modelling is infiltrated by these premises.
So, yes, they fail to understand and assimilate these structural causes as a matter of professional survival.
Science needn’t be this way. The scientific method only refers to the means by which hypotheses are tested. It doesn’t speak to the questions that we choose to ask. One can test if specific companies or industrial sectors are driving the land-use changes that select for deadly pathogens using representative sampling and the latest in statistical analyses. There’s nothing methodological that stops such a science for the people. It’s that few projects along these lines can be funded. Those with the money don’t want to learn whether their gains were ill-earned or are bringing about outbreaks that could one day sooner than later kill a billion people.
Crumbling public health system
Neoliberal capitalism has not only served to spread COVID-19 across the world at supersonic speed but also aggravated its impact on the general population. Many eminent people argue that privatisation of the health system and the crumbling the public health system, austerity measures and other neoliberal measures pursued for the last decades have aggravated the impact of the pandemic. How important is it to have a robust public health system?
From India to the U.S. and increasingly worldwide, public health is being either neglected or monetised off down to the individual relationship between doctor and those who can afford a medical visit. Of course, the millions who can’t afford such visits only become open targets to COVID-19 and other viruses that don’t care about market demographics and privatisation’s business model.
Even then, even as access to individual or family health care is critical, what is necessary isn’t sufficient. Public health is the emergent property of institutions operating together at the population level from federal jurisdiction all the way down to the neighbourhood and village. A variety of formal and informal collectives must be operationalised in overlapping ways such that someone sick doesn’t slip through the cracks whatever money they do or do not have. Again, we must heal the metabolic rift, in this case between epidemiologies and the economies that depend on them. People’s well-being must be folded into the means by which we can socially reproduce ourselves. I mean, there’s the very human rights bourgeois liberals demand that every other ideology respect but here can’t follow themselves. In addition, however, in utterly pragmatic terms alone, our health fates are intertwined. Even as the poor are often hit worse by outbreaks, infectious diseases are contagious, and the individual health neoliberals monetised in reality is utterly dependent upon population health.
It’s by this understanding that countries as widely disparate as China and New Zealand, Vietnam and Iceland, however flawed they may be, were able to quash their COVID-19 outbreaks in a matter of weeks or keep the outbreak from starting locally in the first place. It’s as if they placed the welfare of the people they ostensibly represent, rather than profit and productivity, up near the top of their priorities in governance. I mean, the proof is in the pudding. The Kiwis are living different lives. It was nearly a year ago that fans returned to attending rugby matches maskless, while those Americans who could afford it have remained trapped in their homes in “the land of the free” for over a year now. Big picture, those regimes that turned neoliberal dropped attending to people’s needs beyond their roles as consumers as if such mutual assistance were a foreign concept instead of the very basis of a nation state. Instead, under skies blackened by mass funeral pyres, we see billionaires getting serviced first and foremost like they were secular devata.
Decades of research by epidemiologists like you have proved that commoditisation of agriculture, the essential aspect of capitalism, results in disastrous consequences in terms of deadly pathogens spilling over from animals and endangering human life. What are the practical and alternative suggestions you would put forward in place of commoditisation of agriculture?
I wish it were the case. In reality, considerable time and effort has been placed by establishment science on avoiding studying the relationship between commoditisation, land use and disease ecology. Science funding is organised around protecting its state and private sources from taking responsibility for their roles in the emergence of disease.
It’s remarkable. Capitalism is the primary mode of social organisation today, but if a natural scientist were to bring it up as a testable cause, he or she would be violating some bent notion of objectivity. The science follows accordingly. Among climate researchers, for instance, the philosopher Lorraine Code identified the widespread gesture of sovereign epistemic individualism. Entire cohorts of scientists are trained into concluding that science is best practised as if we are isolated from the greater world. Michael Doan followed up [Lorraine] Code’s work, finding among scientists a related response scepticism that is opposed to collective action.
But there is finally work in the other direction. Our team has proposed moving beyond the One Health that blames indigenous groups and small farmers for the land use changes driving the worst outbreaks. We propose a Structural One Health that incorporates the circuits of capital that make places like New York, London and Hong Kong the worst disease hotspots. It’s these centres of capital that finance the deforestation and development that drive the disease spillover.
Others have converged on such research questions. The ecological economist M. Graziano Ceddia showed that increasing profits in commodity crops acts as a major driver of deforestation. Depending on crop and locale, a 1 per cent increase in investor wealth is associated with increases between 2.4 and 10 per cent in commodity production at the expense of forests in Latin America and South-East Asia. The disease ecologist Luis Chaves connected such changes in local ownership and accumulation to disease outcomes, including in vector-borne diseases such as cutaneous leishmaniasis.
But it’s more than a matter of research. Much of what small farmers do in raising their livestock and crops is already exactly what we need to protect us from new infectious diseases. Agroecology returns agriculture back to a natural economy that folds in many of the ecosystem services we need and for nearly free. Farmers don’t need so many antimicrobials, pesticides and fungicides if agrobiodiversities are reintroduced to keep pests or pathogens from solving, as they do in industrial monocropping, the only cultivar or breed allowed on to the land.
Other everyday practices on small farms offer protection. Under industrial production, livestock can’t reproduce on-farm. All breeding is conducted offshore at the grandparent level for supermarket-friendly characteristics, like bigger breasts and faster growth. So when a pathogen wipes out a barn of poultry save a couple birds still standing, those birds, which may have some immunogenetic quirk that allowed them to survive, can’t be used as progenitors for the next generation with the immunity against the still circulating pathogen. In contrast, livestock and poultry on an agroecological farm reproduce on-farm as a matter of course.
In other words, we need to move back to a more probiotic ecology that infuses health into landscapes long before any medicine is needed by a patient. It isn’t just a matter of soil and reproduction, however. Such interventions require an entire shift in the means by which communities are able to socially reproduce themselves. Who controls decision-making? Can revenue largely be kept inside communities? Farmer autonomy, community socio-economic resilience, circular economies, community land trusts, integrated cooperative supply networks, food justice, reparations and reversing deeply historical race, class and gender trauma are foundational. Not only to community life, good nutrition and clean water but for stopping pandemic strains from emerging in the first place.
Healing the rift between ecology and the economy driving diseases and climate damage at the heart of modern agriculture involves imprinting a different political philosophy upon the landscape.
What are the lessons humanity has to learn from the present pandemic and how to prepare to face future challenges?
As I’ve already offered some practical interventions, I’ll make this summing up short. In the course of industrialising livestock production on the multinational model, we industrialised the pathogens that circulate among them. So to stop the queue of deadly pathogens already inside our door, we need to end agribusiness as we know it. Humanity must reintegrate itself back into the ecology it will always depend upon anyway. Protect the forests and savannahs through which the deadlier pathogens circulate among their wildlife reservoirs. Let forests work for us in their natural succession, padding pathogens in the complexity of ecological relationships we should avoid disrupting. We can still appropriate resources from nature to survive. But we should retire from expropriating nature to our very extinction.
The future isn’t written in stone, but it calls upon all of us to meet the historical moment with the bravery and verve and ingenuity it is asking. Not just in response to the geological forces we have unleashed but to the rich and their well-paid minions who, sociopathic as a matter of principle, are prepared to promote and protect capitalism at the cost of the very planet upon which we depend. Are we ready to revolt?
Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer presently visiting the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu and the soon to be published Revolution Space, both with Monthly Review Press. He is co-author of Neoliberal Ebola: Modeling Disease Emergence from Finance to Forest and Farm, and Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection. He has consulted for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.