So during that fateful spring, it’s fair to say, Wallace should have been as aware as anyone on earth of the speed with which such a virus could spread in the United States. “Perhaps that was my version of being a dead epidemiologist, who cannot assimilate what he knows about things into action or interpretation,” he admitted. Throughout Dead Epidemiologists—some of which was written while he was afflicted with Covid—Wallace mercilessly attacks the complacency and fecklessness with which establishment scientists and politicians responded to the virus; he also surveys the damage that the pandemic has wrought on the bottom rungs of society. The book is poignantly dedicated to three meatpacking workers who died from Covid-19, and Wallace describes their barbarous working conditions in detail. But the book’s chief concern is the origin of the SARS-CoV2 virus, and Wallace works backward here, from the outbreak to the bat cave.
To fully grasp why we’re living in an age of pandemics, one must first understand how industrial agriculture and deforestation work in tandem. The H5N1 bird flu and the H1N1 swine flu emerged from poultry and hog farms, whereas Ebola and Covid-19 emerged from wild animals. All are the result of zoonotic spillovers—when pathogens that originate in animals cross over to humans and then mutate in ways that allow them to spread to other humans. According to a July 2020 report from the United Nations, three out of four of all “new and emerging human infectious diseases” are zoonotic in origin, and a study in the journal Nature found that agricultural drivers were associated with half of all the zoonotic pathogens that emerged in humans in that time. In Wallace’s view, this increase is “concurrent” with the livestock revolution, the expansion and consolidation of the meat sector that began in the 1970s in the southeastern United States and then spread around the world.
When thousands of the same breed of animal are raised in crowded conditions, the lack of biodiversity creates “an ecology nigh perfect for the evolution of multiple virulent strains of influenza,” Wallace wrote. Farms built near dwindling primary forests where zoonotic pathogens reside have inadvertently “empowered the pathogens to be their very best selves,” he told me. “You strip out the complexity of forest that had been keeping these pathogens bottled up, and you let them have a nice straight shot to the major cities, which gives them opportunities to multiply themselves. This all increases transmission and increases virulence.”
The cities themselves have also become increasingly vulnerable, without investment in public space and health care. “You’ve stripped out everything from environmental sanitation, especially in the Global South, and you’ve made public health an individual intervention,” he added.
But few have made the connection between the past year and a half and the processes that Wallace highlights. “Other than reprobates like me, most Americans think of Covid-19 as a thing that emerged out of China, and doesn’t it have to do with bats or labs or something?” Wallace continued. “So a natural act, or the fault of the Chinese, or both.” That obfuscation makes sense, given what Wallace repeatedly identifies as the essential strategy of agribusiness corporations: They leave their biggest costs off their own balance sheets and let them fall instead on the environment, animals, farmers, workers, consumers, and public health agencies the world over. “Governments are prepared to subsidize agribusiness billions upon billions for damage control in the form of animal and human vaccines, tamiflu, culling operations, and body bags,” he wrote concerning the swine flu in 2009.
Unlike your average MSNBC viewer, Wallace never dismissed the “lab leak” theory of Covid’s origin as outside the realm of possibility or beyond legitimate scientific inquiry. In 2013, he warned that the proliferation over the past 20 years of biosafety labs—which handle and run experiments on some of the world’s deadliest viruses—was making an accident almost inevitable. Though he’s still a proponent of the “field” hypothesis, which holds that the virus crossed over in nature rather than in a laboratory facility, Wallace believes that the origin debate, at least as it’s being hashed out in the public sphere, largely misses the point. “Both represent efforts at avoiding addressing the economic model driving the emergence of virulent pathogens to begin with,” he argued last August on his Patreon page, where his articles often appear first. “The trope best suited for organizing our thinking here isn’t necessarily a murder mystery. It may be better conceived as an alien invasion of our own making.”
It may come as a surprise that Wallace, a scholar of agriculture, was born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He was an only child and a self-described “pink diaper baby”—his parents to the left of the Democratic Party, but not quite Reds. Rodrick and Deborah Wallace, a physicist and an ecologist, met on a picket line protesting a weapons research lab when they were graduate students at Columbia and Barnard. Rodrick was organizing with a group called Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, an early formation of Science for the People, which would count radical scientists like Richard Levins, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Lewontin as members. When Columbia hosted an Earth Day celebration sponsored by Ford Motors, which Deborah called “the first attempt at greenwashing,” the couple helped organize the inaugural People’s Earth Day event, with speakers from the United Farm Workers and the Black Panther Party, as well as the labor leader Tony Mazzocchi.
Shortly after Robert was born, his parents became epidemiologists in their own right. Their study of the destruction of housing in the Bronx in the early 1970s and its public health fallout became the book A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Health Crumbled. The Wallaces showed that the fires that engulfed the Bronx between 1969 and 1976 were the result of the city’s decision to reduce fire services in poor neighborhoods, based on faulty data from the Rand Corporation.