“We were running a disaster site operation out of our house. We didn’t have the time or energy to indoctrinate the child,” Rodrick said during a Zoom call with the couple from their home in the Bronx. “He could tell what was going on through the conversations he heard or through seeing the hundreds of autopsy reports laid out on our terrace from the mass, fatal toxic fires.” Today the Wallace family works collaboratively; Rodrick and Deborah are the coauthors of several chapters in Dead Epidemiologists.
While pursuing a PhD in biology at the City University of New York, where he also contributed articles and illustrations to the student newspaper The Messenger, Wallace studied the HIV crisis in the city in the 1980s and ’90s. He found that AIDS death rates by zip code corresponded to the unequal distribution of the life-saving cocktails of antiretroviral medications, which in turn corresponded to previously existing inequality. “Rob’s dissertation was essentially an extension of the family business,” Deborah said. It marked the beginning of Wallace’s fascination with the social dimensions of infectious disease and served as morbid preparation for the way Covid-19 has laid bare the United States’ and the rest of the globe’s most deeply entrenched injustices.
After graduate school, Wallace went to the University of California, Irvine, to do postdoctoral research with Dr. Walter Fitch, the father of molecular phylogeny, a method of tracing the evolutionary history of and relationships among organisms. In 2007 Wallace was the lead author of the first study that pinpointed the southern Chinese province of Guangdong as the source of the H5N1 avian influenza virus in the mid-1990s. Yet there was something the genetic sequencing he was looking at couldn’t tell him: Why did it emerge there during that time? “I made the mistake of becoming curious about something,” Wallace said. “That’s not a good career move in science.”
He began to read beyond his discipline, investigating history, sociology, and political economy. “In the course of getting these literatures to speak to each other, all of a sudden my vision of what causality is completely changed,” Wallace said. He found that as China’s post-Mao economy opened up to direct foreign investment, it shifted from subsistence agriculture to vertically integrated poultry and hog farming for commodity export. Between 1985 and 2000, skyrocketing chicken and duck production combined with a globally unprecedented migration of people from China’s rural areas to the cities to create the perfect epidemiological storm. “The social sciences are utterly critical to understand how things evolve at the molecular level,” he said.
Following the money changed Wallace’s concept of what a disease hot spot is. If we paid as much attention to the entities that fund deforestation and highly pathogenic farming methods as we do to the outbreak zone, we would have to see the international centers of finance like London, Hong Kong, and New York City as viral epicenters too. “Hong Kong had been painted as a victim in this moralistic story, but it was also the source by virtue of financing the reconstruction of agriculture in Guangdong,” Wallace said. He proposed that China advocate renaming viruses and their variants to reflect their political- economic origins, as he’s begun to do in his own writing, with the “NAFTA Flu” (for the swine flu) and “Neoliberal Ebola.” In July, Keir Starmer of the UK Labour Party proposed naming what was then known as the UK variant after Boris Johnson. Wallace had already named it the BoJo Strain in December.
Wallace’s discovery that macroeconomics could shape microbiology was both a breakthrough and the beginning of the end of his academic career. He had applied for a tenure-track position in the geography department at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, but was hired in 2008 on a contractual basis instead. He suspected this was due to a factional dispute within the department, and he felt marginalized by his colleagues when he arrived. He had also started a blog, Farming Pathogens, and when the swine flu emerged in 2009, Wallace wrote about who was to blame. “When you start speaking out at Minnesota, which is an agricultural shop, and you blame agribusiness for the emergence of a pandemic, you’re not going to get support,” Wallace said. His one-year contract was not renewed, and he was given a token visiting scholar position. “They dumped my body at the Institute for Global Studies. I had no money and no office, basically just access to the library. So I got the message.”
Wallace spent the next few years bitter and angry. He was also broke, living off food stamps and unemployment insurance. He and his wife had gotten divorced. The weeks when his son stayed with him, he’d eat OK; when he was solo, not so much. Eventually he got a job making sandwiches at a deli in St. Paul. Wallace had also written enough blog posts that he could shop around a book of essays, which became Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science, published in 2016 by Monthly Review Press.
“His depth of ecological understanding was just astounding, and he managed to bring it together with epidemiology and social science in amazing ways,” said John Bellamy Foster, the editor of Monthly Review, a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, and the author of Marx’s Ecology. “One of the problems on the left, like everywhere else, was that issues of nature and science were separate from social science and history. Biology was an issue for biologists, not for social scientists. Rob’s work teaches us to put these together and make sense of what’s going on.”
While Wallace’s harrowing predictions in Big Farms Make Big Flu might have seemed alarmist in 2016, today, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, they look prophetic. As Wallace’s star has risen over the past year and a half, the book has been reprinted in Spanish and Italian, and he’s been interviewed by media outlets in India, Brazil, and Germany. “His work is irresistible,” Foster said, “because we are facing these growing epidemiological and economic crises, and Rob’s analysis is really the only realistic lens to understand the problem. His critique is now a common ground for critical intellectuals around the world. And it’s happened very fast.”