Transcribed from the 23 March 2020 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
Some of the better epidemiology now is being organized around figuring out how to keep the state and capital continuing on even as people may very well be found dead in their apartments across the country and across the world.
Chuck Mertz: Despite endless media coverage of novel Coronavirus 2019, nobody has yet talked about exactly what caused the pathogen to be released, the virus to be transmitted, and the pandemic to become global so quickly. That’s because nobody is willing to do the radical work of actually looking at the root causes of COVID-19.
Here to do just that, evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer Rob Wallace wrote the Monthly Review article “Notes on a Novel Coronavirus.” Rob blogs at Farming Pathogens. His next book is the upcoming Revolution Space. He’s also author of the 2016 book Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science.
Welcome to This is Hell!, Rob.
Rob Wallace: It’s a pleasure to be here, Chuck.
CM: You write, “Outbreaks that make it onto the world stage can be game-changers, even if they eventually die out. They upend the everyday routines of even a world already in tumult or at war.”
When this is over, do you think the world will simply be the same, we’ll be able to go back and act as if nothing happened, and jump right back onto whatever societal trajectory we were on? Can we just go back? Should we go back? Should we be nostalgic about the past and try to retain that when this is all over?
RW: “Will we” and “should we” are two different things. We can’t underestimate the capacity of our rulers to be able to surf along any disaster, and be able to come out all roses on the other end. I’m not giving them more power than they have, but they have shown themselves to be quite capable of jumping across any barrier they have been confronted with. Capitalism is organized around profit first: it is already in the business of putting people through the wood-chipper, as it were, turning people and nature into profit.
The possibility of two million people dying—this is, after all, what wars have been about all along, we just can’t blame a bunch of other humans for this one. Well, we choose not to: it’s easy just to blame the virus. It’s SARS-2 causing the damage; leave it at that. Some of the better epidemiology now is being organized around figuring out how to keep the state and capital continuing on even as people may very well be found dead in their apartments across the country and across the world. We don’t know what’s going to happen. But if history is any indication, capital, its rulers, and its representatives in state power are even now organizing mechanisms by which they can continue the modes of expropriation which caused the pathogen to emerge in the first place.
Now, should circumstances continue as they are, the obvious answer is no. Here all of us are, cowering in our apartments. We already know people who have been infected, or who have died. And this is only the beginning. Some of us are noting on Instagram, “Day Five.” It may very well become “Month Five” or “Month Eighteen.” As to the extent the economy can survive such a thing—it can’t. Whether or not we’re going to be able to continue keeping supply lines protected as people get sick and pop off is something that should be of concern to everyone.
As indicated in the president’s response, concerned more about the state of the stock market than he is about the Coronavirus driving declines in the market, for many capitalists (not just Trump, but extending out into much of the Democratic Party and beyond) it’s very much about saving capital first, even if it leaves a trail of bodies along the way.
That should not be. Epidemiological models are organized around helping to perpetuate that system, providing epidemiological fodder for explaining why workers need to continue in the factories. Any socialist government would say we need more masks, we need to upscale our production of antivirals, we need to hire what we would call a Pandemic Corps, so we can have the labor necessary to arrive up to the scale of operations that Coronavirus is operating at. Nurses are going to be mowed down, particularly in a context where the CDC is recommending they could use scarves and bandannas as masks.
This is a really a terrible place. We have to get to a place where we can do two things. First, in the immediate term we need to continue to enforce maximum pressure on a government that doesn’t really care for us, and make them do what they don’t want to do, which is to protect people and save people. On the other hand (and I say this as a socialist, but the anarchists are on to something), there is this notion of mutual aid and neighborhood brigades. If the government is not going to be there for us, then we are in the position of having to organize ourselves and not only engage in self-quarantine to protect each other—self-quarantine isn’t enough. People need help. There should be people going around the neighborhoods knocking on doors and making sure people are okay, and those people in the neighborhood brigades need to be well-trained. They need to be trained by, for instance, the nurses’ unions, if they at all can spare the personnel to do so, so that acts of kindness don’t lead to spreading the infection.
CM: A lot of people are posting on social media that you can either save the economy or you can save the people. The priority for Trump seems to be saving the economy. What would you say to somebody who argues that saving the economy will save lives? What’s wrong with that kind of thinking? What’s wrong with prioritizing the economy over people, with the idea that you are saving lives in doing so?
The economy that we organized, our means of social reproduction, is engaged in expropriation, and it involves assuming that Earth is an infinite source of resources. As we have exported our neoliberal model around the world, more of the world is engaged in the kind of deforestation and development that leads to greater spillover of these pathogens out of their wild reservoirs.
RW: Right now we have a fairly well-functioning economy that is not doing a good job saving people. If you set up your economy in such a way that the entirety of your healthcare system has been largely stripped down to a “just-in-time” neoliberal program, you are not in a good position to deal with a surge of cases. We’re just in the early days, and already people are fighting in Bronx hospitals, doctors and patients, over protective equipment, masks and such. So our economy is not in a position to save people at this point in time.
Right now we must put ourselves in a better position to upsurge our capacity to help and save people. The emergency extends into the structural. The emergency isn’t just the virus; it isn’t just the infections. The emergency extends into our incapacity to respond to such a thing. The economy isn’t synonymous with capitalism. There can be foundational shifts in the way we produce things. At the present time we need to focus on the classic Marxist notion of use value—we need to produce drugs and vaccines and the basic medical equipment necessary to keep people alive so that there is an economy on the other side of this.
I would oppose going back to an expropriating economy. Certainly at this juncture we need to suspend that way of thinking.
CM: As you point out, the second-largest Ebola outbreak just happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo, burning itself out apparently on March 3—over 2,200 people died. You write, “Should the COVID-19 virus prove less infectious or more deadly than initially thought, civilization goes on however many people are killed. The H1N1-2009 influenza outbreak that worried so many a decade-plus ago proved less virulent than it first seemed, but even that strain penetrated the global population and quietly killed patients at magnitudes far beyond those first follow-up dismissals. H1N1-2009 killed as many as 579,000 people in its first year, producing complications in fifteen times more cases than initially projected from lab tests alone.”
If the numbers are so high, if we are so aware of these epidemics and pandemics happening over and over again, then what explains why the United States seemed to drop its guard when it comes to protecting itself against pandemics? Why did the whole world seem to drop its guard in protecting itself against a pandemic, when pandemics have been happening on a regular basis over the last twenty years?
RW: That’s an excellent question. A few things come to mind. First, the economy that we organized, our means of social reproduction, is engaged in expropriation, and it involves assuming that Earth is an infinite source of resources. As we have exported our neoliberal model around the world, more of the world is engaged in the kind of deforestation and development that leads to greater spillover of these pathogens out of their wild reservoirs. That in part explains the increasing frequency of the emergence of these pathogens as well as the increasing geographic and temporal extent of the outbreaks.
Ebola, from 1976 on, would emerge and take out a village or a guerrilla troop or two—it’s a terrible thing; there’s a case-fatality ratio of ninety percent—but then it would burn out and that would be it. And then it’s 2013, and Ebola has been around in west Africa for five or ten years, and all of the sudden it spills over and infects 35,000 people, killing 11,000, leaving bodies in the streets of regional capitals. How does it happen? If you look at the genetics of the virus itself, nothing’s changed. Same clinical course, same generation time, in terms of infections and in terms of momentum—and yet it went from taking out villages to taking flights to Europe and America and back.
Our group’s hypothesis is that as neoliberalism turned to west Africa as the source of the last virgin farmland available, what was previously a subsistence agri-forestry economy underwent a classic enclosure and proletarianization that turns locals from just growing enough for themselves or local trade into moving in the direction of national production or even export economy. Our group focused on palm oil, which is one of the largest, fastest-growing cash crops in the world. It’s outgrown its base in southeast Asia and is looking for other places to grow out, so west Africa has become a primary center for new growth.
Liberia has long been a center of corporate production going back to the days of rubber tapping. But Guinea next door was largely closed off. It started to turn its subsistence palm oil into more national-level para-statal companies that were subsequently opening up to multinational production at the time in which Ebola spilled over. If we look at maps or satellite pictures, we can see all sorts of growing patches of palm oil in the region.
This gets into the story of the bats. There are frugivore bats, insectivore bats, common reservoirs of Ebola, and they’re not going to roll over and die as deforestation progresses. A lot of wild animals are going to die off, and we’re in the middle of a classic extinction event in that regard. But some of the animals have enough behavioral plasticity to allow them to adjust to circumstance. Bats are one; wild waterfowl are another. So bats actually started to gravitate towards these agricultural plantations. What’s not to like? You have no competitors, no predators, you have this wonderful space between your roosting sites and your foraging sites, and of course along the way you increase your interface with humans, so there’s an increase in the rate of spillover. There’s also an increase in the diversity of pathogens that are making their way from these wild animals into humans, whether it’s indirectly through livestock, as some of the influenzas are doing, or directly, right into humans.
Forests, in their very being, are able produce what is called environmental stochasticity. That’s a kind of complexity in the forest that tamps down any single outbreak. But what agribusiness and logging and mining have done is not only cut down forests but strip their ecologies in such a way that they’ve reduced the complexities so these pathogens have a much smoother, straight shot through the peri-urban continuum into the local city.
That’s the neoliberal impact on the supply end, as it were. On the demand end, if I may, it’s a long story of structural adjustment programs. Countries, in order to get international loans, have to basically change their economies to suit international investors, so there is a decline in public health and animal health expenditures—so anyone who shows up to a hospital with Ebola won’t get the treatment or even the diagnosis that’s necessary. It’s hard; the symptoms are quite noisy and it’s not always clear whether someone has Ebola or Lassa fever or something like that. But with a structurally-adjusted health system, once it gets going, a pathogen can make its way into the city.
This goes hand-in-glove with shifts in migration patterns. People are engaged in more cycle migration. They are forced off their land, so they move to the city, but they only work there a little bit and go back home during the growing season to help out. That increases what I call the peri-urban circuit that goes on between wildlife spillover from the deepest forest in through and past the peri-urban continuum and into a major city, where it’s very much connected into the international travel network, which is as integrated as it’s ever been. So a pathogen might move from the deepest forest on a bat or a bird or any other wild animal, and in a matter of weeks end up infecting beach-goers in Miami.
CM: You point out that “the unknowns of the exact source, infectivity, penetrance, and possible treatments together explain why epidemiologists and public health officials are worried about COVID-19. Unlike the seasonal influenzas cited by pandemic skeptics, the uncertainty rattles practitioners.”
Why does the exact source matter? And how much does it matter? Can a vaccine or treatment be created without knowing the exact source?
RW: The exact source does matter, for good reasons and bad. The bad reason is that everybody wants to blame everybody else. The system that produced this—if I were to say agribusiness has a fundamental hand in the emergence of COVID-19, nobody wants to have that hung on their head. Over the last ten years, we’ve seen agribusiness and other industries develop classic crisis control plans in which everyone else is blamed. Historically, at least with the influenzas, they blame China—which does bear some responsibility, and we can talk about that. But they might blame even contract smallholders who are raising their livestock and not adhering to company plans, when in fact the smallholders are doing exactly that and that is the means by which pathogens emerge and become much more deadly.
That’s the bad reason why the source matters. The good reason is that we do want to know where these pathogens emerge because then, ostensibly, we can do things differently to make sure that these pathogens don’t emerge in the first place. Whether it’s COVID-19 or Ebola, forests and other wild environments are indeed the source of multiple pathogens—but they also engage in a kind of self-regulation. If you’ve ever been in a rainforest, it’s a very complex place. There’s a lot going on. Any host with a pathogen is unlikely to come across another host in short order and spring a whole line of transmission out of the forest and into your local city. In essence, forests, in their very being, are able produce what is called environmental stochasticity. That’s a kind of complexity in the forest that tamps down any single outbreak in such a way that if Ebola spills out into a village—terrible thing—it stays there. But what agribusiness and logging and mining have done is not only cut down forests but strip their ecologies in such a way that they’ve reduced the complexities so these pathogens have a much smoother, straight shot through that peri-urban continuum to the local city.
We do want to know where the pathogen came from. We do want to know that bats are inniologically suited for clamping down on pathogens so they can continue to fly, and that ends up offering a selection pressure on Corona viruses and Ebola viruses to replicate as fast and hard as possible against the bat immune system. That selects for virulence which, once it spills over into humans, can cause considerable damage.
These things do matter in terms of potential drugs and vaccines and medical care that we might devise in the course of trying to treat these things. But it also matters in terms of how we think about the emergency. If we’re just focused on the virus, then we’ll be perfectly happy using the means at hand to stop it—which we should—but in such a way that perpetuates the very system that causes the damage in the first place. If we assimilate the sources of the emergence of the virus into the way we handle the emergency, then we will conduct our emergency operations differently. We’ll realize that we are continuing to cut into forest.
This outbreak here is one of many over the last twenty years, and it is likely that we will continue to select for pathogens that emerge this way into the future. We would be delusional to think that this is a once-in-a-century event. 1918 may be the signpost behind us, but it is not the signpost ahead. It’s very likely that a pathogen this deadly or worse will emerge much sooner than we have plotted.
Capital operates as if it doesn’t even exist on the planet—the basal metabolism of the ecologies of our planet are merely the meat locker that they bring food out of. It’s no longer operating under the notion that we as human beings are animals and living beings that are part and parcel of an integrated ecology.
CM: What’s the potential for us to give far more authority to government officials now, as an act of desperation that will haunt us into the future?
RW: That is a danger. There are two types of errors. One is not acting when there is true danger, and the other is acting when it really wasn’t going to be a problem. I would rather do the second type. If we don’t act, and it is a problem, we end up where we are now. It’s better to overreact in such a way that if we rise to the occasion and it really is a problem then we can handle it, and if it isn’t a problem at least we have basically run a pandemic simulation, as it were, so we are prepared.
Now, I don’t think this is a simulation. This is the real deal: people are getting sick, and people are dying. Here’s the issue. I don’t think even the best estimates in terms of what we need to do are enough. I have a lot to criticize the Chinese about, but they didn’t just do mitigation, they went to all-out suppression. It sucks to be in your house under curfew. But there’s a level of reaction that we have not grasped, it’s not even on our plates. When people go outside, they gear up like they’re going to another planet. They have goggles, gloves, outer wear; they have masks. They go out and do their thing and then come back and leave their outer wear outside. This is a level of reaction that we are not participating in. No one is telling us this. No one’s involved in this.
When someone delivers food: they have a bike, they stop the bike, they walk away from the bike. The person who’s getting the food goes to the bike, picks up the package, and reads the slip that has the temperature of the cook and the latest temperature of the biker, and then pays out and walks away from the bike before the delivery guy takes his bike back. It sounds absurd. I watched it on TV and thought, “Oh, man.” But you begin to grasp and understand the seriousness with which they are taking it. And they have indeed pushed the number of deaths, and even the number of new cases, way down, to a point that allows them to continue to be free.
On the other hand, with our more laissez-faire attitudes about this, our modelers are saying we can go back and forth between self-quarantine and being out working and keeping the economy alive, but their estimates in this scenario are eighteen months. Which population is the free one? Something we’re keeping our eye on is whether it’ll bounce back once China takes the foot off the pedal. But they went whole-hog to clamp down on the outbreaks, and did contact tracing at the peak of the outbreak in a way that we are incapable of doing even in the early days.
It also really speaks to our collapse in public health over the last forty or fifty years. We have neglected public health in favor of individualized medical care, or we spun it off and monetized it.
CM: So it’s globalization, because globalization spreads the pandemic quicker. It’s austerity because we cut all of the funding for public healthcare. It’s deforestation because that’s imposed on nations by the World Bank—deforestation that’s not only leading to the spread of pandemics but deforestation that’s leading to climate change. How much are all of these things interconnected? How much is the fight against future pandemics connected to the fight against climate change?
RW: They are foundationally integrated. Capital operates as if it doesn’t even exist on the planet—the basal metabolism of the ecologies of our planet are merely the meat locker that they bring food out of. I think of Elon Musk, when he put his car into space. That’s exactly what capitalism is, it’s off the planet. It’s no longer operating under the notion that we as human beings are animals and living beings that are part and parcel of an integrated ecology.
Climate change and pandemics are not just functionally integrated in the sense that the planet warms and it changes the geography of the pathogens. They are integrated through the ideological totalitarianism of neoliberal capitalism that has been imposed on the planet in such a way that not only are we as humans alienated from our work, but nature itself has been alienated. We cannot even think through or operate in nature’s context except through the lens of commodification.
This is not sustainable at some point. I’m not a prepper, I’m not a catastrophist, but we really are coming to multiple environmental precipices that are all integrating in a way that really increases uncertainty. You know how we’re all uncertain now about whether our cough is COVID or not? That’s part of the terror and the danger of all this. It’s not like seasonal influenza, where we’ve got a bead on it, and vaccines, and we know its course. With this we have no idea. Now multiply that many times over for several hundred years going forward, this uncertainty, this existential dread, not understanding what the blowback is going to be.
The best way to think through any of these problems is to move away from absolute geographies. What I mean is looking at, let’s say, an outbreak emerging out of China or moving out of Africa. The details do matter, for sure. But to focus on this moves our eye off the more relational geography, how circuits of capital circle the world. Who funded the deforestation that led to this spillover in the first place? This is why I view places like London, Hong Kong, and New York as disease hotspots. Not because of the present outbreak, but because these are the sources of the capital that drove the deforestation that’s caused the spillover into the farthest hinterlands across the globe.
If we want to stop not just pandemics but climate change, we’re going to have to foundationally get on what capitalism is and why it cannot continue, and start thinking about what a socially and ecologically integrated economy is and what that involves. It’s time to come to grips with the fact that we are in a historical moment that is foundational, where we either do something that foundationally changes the nature of our mode of social reproduction, or basically we can continue to cower in our apartments from here on out.
In other words, it’s the end of society. I’ve got some anarchist agrarian friends, farmers out in the Midwest who are all about the prepper stuff, and they’re leftists. For them, they see the writing on the wall: we’re going to degrade to bioregionalisms and local food systems. This isn’t about the nice little farmer’s market on Saturday mornings—they’re thinking of something else. I know farmers across the States and elsewhere who are closing down shop. This is what smallholders can do and large agribusiness can’t. They can cut down shop and just do subsistence farming until the crisis passes.
For five hundred years there have been peoples around the world who objected to our sociopathy and understood that we are part of a larger ecosystem. We need to respect that.
CM: Everything we have discussed this morning—the World Bank’s role, deforestation’s role, globalization’s role, austerity’s role, the causes of COVID-19—what happens when all of those sources for COVID-19 are ignored by the establishment media? What happens to the popular perception of what is happening on the ground right now?
RW: They’re recapitulating narratives of power. There might be some individuals who are genuinely concerned about this—a lot of people are concerned about this, certainly. But not to the point of being willing to drop what they’ve invested in a metaphysics and a political economy that rewards them so well. This gets to H. Bruce Franklin’s notion that Fredric Jameson took on, which is that capitalism is more important than saving the planet—it’s more important that capitalism continues to exist than the planet.
This is a foundationally sociopathic rule. There are people who are magically well-groomed, who have all the accoutrements of a sensible, interesting, vivacious personality, and they are absolutely off their rocker. It doesn’t have to do with individual mental health or anything; it has to do with a sociological implant, as it were, in terms of the way they view the world and how they move in it. At some point we have to say we’re not going to participate in that anymore, and start to organize against it.
I used to argue with agribusiness representatives. I don’t do that anymore; I think it’s a waste of time. I do sometimes, if there’s a broader audience to make a point to. But those people are off their rockers. Let me take that back: some of them are off their rockers. The true believers are utter morons and they’re not allowed at the wheel of these companies and organizations. The others are cynics who know it’s going down, and are doing the best they can to squeeze out the last little bit. We have what’s called the Lauderdale paradox, where as the amount of primary forest declines, it becomes that much more valuable, so there’s a greater push by companies to get the last little bit.
I think back to when I was in third grade—I knew about deforestation then, but I would look at a map and think, “Well, at least there’s the Congo and the Amazon!” Those are the lungs of the planet. They are going to continue to produce oxygen. We wouldn’t be so foolish as to cut into that. But that’s exactly what we’re doing! They are so willing to drive the very basis by which we eat and breathe into the ground for a couple bucks. The notion that somehow the market is going to figure this out—is the market figuring anything out for us now? At his point in time of a pandemic that requires a massive governmental and inter-governmental response? What are we going to do? Monetize the expansion of home lab kits so each of us can develop our own vaccine? Is that the libertarian way of dealing with this?
We have to wake the fuck up and get out of this notion that the ethos that even we on the left have assimilated is going to be enough to get us out of this present moment. The fact of the matter is: all of us are going to know people who will have died in this. It’s early yet, and we can’t believe that. But it’s already happening. You have to reach to a moment in which you decide as a human being that you’re going to unplug out of a sociopathic system that not only destroys people in this country but people around the world.
Whether or not you have kids, there is a sense of getting back to more Indigenous notions of us borrowing the Earth from our grandkids rather than just using it like this. I’ve had my own revelations in the last couple years of how plugged in I have been in the assumptions of the system, and I find myself increasingly radicalized about this, week to week, and realizing that for five hundred years there have been peoples around the world who objected to our sociopathy and understood that we are part of a larger ecosystem, and we need to respect that. It doesn’t mean that we don’t get to survive. We do have the right to appropriate things from nature. But expropriating to the point that we destroy the very basis by which we walk about is ridiculous.
Look how lucky we are. We are on the surface of a planet where we get to walk around without a spacesuit. We don’t have to have a mask on our face, huffing canisters of air. Maybe that’s the direction we’re going; we could monetize the water in such a way that we turn it into a fictitious commodity that people buy at the store. Can you imagine Amazon getting into the business of sending out packages of air canisters? How much money could they make? Do we want to move in a direction where we destroy all these free “ecosystem services,” clean water, clean air, and food? Put a seed in the ground and it grows, just about. It just needs a little tending. It’s astonishing. We have lost touch with a very basic understanding. It’s wonderful to look at the stars and other planets and all this, but the notion that we would be willing to destroy the very basis of our existence here in favor of some sociopathic abstraction is off the wall.
CM: One last question for you, Rob, and with each and every one of our guests our final question is the Question from Hell: the question we might hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate your response. I have a feeling that this is the Question from Hell that we’re going to be asking everyone; it’s the Question from Hell that everybody is asking each other right now. Rob, how are you feeling?
RW: I am not feeling that well. I actually have a COVID infection. I’m on day fifteen. It’s only in the last couple days that my symptoms have emerged: shortness of breath, starting to feel a peripheral neuropathy, numbness in the hands and feet, which is really not a good sign. It might be lack of oxygen. After this interview, I’m unplugging myself and I’m taking myself to the hospital.
What I’m most concerned about is that I don’t have a fever, no coughing, no mucus; I think the lack of symptoms is worrying because it’s saying that the pathogen is willing and able to trick the body into not deploying physical defenses. I feel really good right now talking to you, and I appreciate the opportunity to do this. But there are parts of the day, particularly in the evening, when I just feel like absolute crap.
This is not an influenza, people. This is the real deal. Some of us will be fine. Some of us aren’t going to make it. I’m really sorry for that. But you have to take this very seriously. I just wish everyone the best. Hang in there. The world will be here tomorrow. We’ll make our way through this. Let’s make it into a place where we don’t have to go through this again.
CM: Thank you so much for your work and best of luck to you and yours, sir.
RW: Thank you, Chuck, I appreciate that.
Featured image: illustration by Olaf Hajek, via the Monthly Review