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Review of "Dead Epidemiologists” by Rob Wallace

Brian Champ

February 2, 2021
As we find ourselves once again locked down because public health measures taken by our governments were too inadequate and inconsistent to prevent the second wave of the virus from mushrooming, there is a confusing barrage of information that can be hard to weigh through.
Dead Epidemiologists is must have book for socialists who want to understand the material origins of Covid-19, and other emergent pathogens, and way that the practices of global agribusiness multinationals produce novel viruses, bacteria and other pathogens as they produce food products for global markets. Rob Wallace is an evolutionary epidemiologist with the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps (ARERC or “RRC”), a group of independent scientists, educators, and agricultural practitioners who work with local communities and organizations to investigate agri-food system change across the Upper Midwest. He also wrote Big Farms make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness and the Nature of Science in 2016.
This book is a series of articles written by Wallace, many co-authored with other practitioners in such fields a human geography, disease ecology, crop and soil science, agroecological farming, economic geography, wildlife biology and mathematical epidemiology. Some are republished versions of articles that were published online (Monthly review online published two articles: "Notes on a Novel Coronavirus" from January and "Covid-19 and the circuits of Capital" from April which was a source for my mid 2020 SW article "Covid-19, Capitalism and Climate"), others are transcripts of interviews for a variety of independent media sources and others were adapted from presentations that were made at various meetings that occurred throughout the year. 
Significantly, the book is dedicated to the memory of three UFCW workers at meat processing facilities who died of Covid-19 in 2020: 
"Chief Steward at the JBS Slaughterhouse in Souderton, PA, Enock Benjamin, aged 70, died in April; Rafael Benjamin, aged 64, who was told not to wear a mask at Cargill Beef and Pork processing plant in Hazelton, PA, died in April; UFCW member Celso Mendoza, aged 59, a leader in the plant's union organizing drive at a Chicken processing plant in Forest Mississippi died in May. "
All in all, It is a useful resource for understanding the way capitalism as a whole is implicated in the rise of novel pathogens; not just the way the exotic food markets and agricultural land expansion encroaches more and more brutally on the little wilderness that exists, and exposes animals and humans to novel pathogens; not just the way the food industry knowingly introduces conditions that give almost unlimited mutation conditions for viruses, bacteria and other pathogens in the relentless pursuit of profit; not just the way large populations of industrial herds and flocks of animals are clustered in areas close to large cities, facilitating inter-species infection; not just access to global supply chains that ship food products, viruses and other pathogens around the world; it is all of the above.
In the preface, he makes an embarrassing confession: that he contracted Covid-19 in early March as he had continued his normal circuit of flights as part of his ongoing work. He relates his difficulty in obtaining a test in the US at the time, having to be diagnosed online by a nurse practitioner based solely on the description of symptoms. This nonchalance of the government to the challenge we face is related to the racist contagion that has infected US society since it's inception:
"No one gets to walk through this in the clear, however, no one. We are all bonded to epochal failures in leadership and institutional cognition. What, for instance, was someone who had worked through COVID's imaginarium early on doing flying a week into March? I too had been infused with a peculiarly American moment, wherein financial desperation meets Imperial exceptionalism. I too had to travel for work and nothing was going to happen to me. It's a fetish that working man George Floyd, who two months later died by a cop's knee on a street corner in South Minneapolis I regularly travel, never believed for a moment that he live-streamed himself talking of the daily dangers of being Black. Nor did the series of "mouthy" Black detainees into whom Minneapolis police had paramedics inject ketamine, risking respiratory arrest under the cover of a Hennepin Hospital study. The greatest sources of U.S. wealth are the daily reenactments of the slavery and genocide and environmental decimation on which it was built. From the ritual murders of arrestees to forcing meatpackers back to work during a deadly outbreak, to risk, with COVID attacking our vasculature, blood chokes of their own. As if the country couldn't recognize itself otherwise”
"Notes on a Novel Coronavirus", written in late January contains a discussion of the anti-Chinese racism that was exemplified by Trump and echoed by layers of epidemiologists when they talk about "China being the source of repeated outbreaks, but it, and a WHO now owned by philanthrocapitalism, conducts exemplary biocontrol". Clearly countering this racism, Wallace responds:
"We can reject Sinophobia, offer material support, and still well remember China covered up the SARS-1 outbreak in 2003. Beijing suppressed media and public health reports, allowing that coronavirus to splatter across its own country. Medical authorities one province over from an outbreak didn't know what their patients were suddenly showing up with in the ER. SARS-1 eventually spread across multiple countries as far as Canada and was barely driven to extirpation.
The new century has meanwhile been marked by China's failure or refusal to unpack its near-perfect storm of rice, duck, and industrial poultry and hog production driving multiple novel strains of influenza. It is treated as a price for prosperity.
This is no Chinese exceptionalism, however. The United States and Europe have served as ground zeros for new influenzas as well, recently H5N2 and H5Nx, and their multinationals and neocolonial proxies drove the emergence of Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil. U.S. public health officials covered for agribusiness during the H1N1 (2009) and H5N2 outbreaks"
Other articles include: "The Kill Floor" explores the dangerousness of the meatpacking plants and efforts by Trump and Republican states to keep them open as people are dying. "Midwinter-19" delves into whether or not the virus came from the field or was created in a lab that exposes the risks of both eventualities. "Blood Machines" highlights the environmental impacts on horseshoe crabs of vaccine production. "To the Bat Cave" looks at the epidemiology of Covid-19 as bats became implicated as the source for the transmission to humans. "The Origins of Industrial Agriculture Pathogens" looks in detail at industrial agriculture practices that contribute to pathogen emergence as well as the historical origins of pathogens through the history of livestock farming. One article highlights some of the ongoing participatory projects under the heading "Pandemic Research for the People" (PReP). "The Bright Bulbs" is a useful roundup of bad takes on Covid-19 to help counter those who downplay, deny, obfuscate or use racism to avoid taking appropriate action.
In "Covid-19 and the circuits of capital", the stakes for public health of taking effective action are laid out:
"... a successful intervention keeping any one of the many pathogens queueing up across the agroeconomic circuit from killing a billion people must walk through the door of a global clash with capital and its local representatives, however much any individual foot soldier of the bourgeoisie ... attempts to mitigate the damage. As our research group describes in some of our latest work, agribusiness is at war with public health. And public health is losing.
Should, however, greater humanity win such a generational conflict, we can replug ourselves back into a planetary metabolism that, however differently expressed place to place, reconnects our ecologies and our economies. Such ideals are more than matters of the utopian. 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 the pathogens from ramping up in virulence and geographic extent. We allow our food animals to reproduce on-site, restarting the natural selection that allows immune evolution to track pathogens in real time. Big picture, we stop treating nature and community, so full of all we need to survive, as just another competitor to be run off by the market"
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