Pope Francis has been vindicated – again – after an evolutionary epidemiologist who predicted COVID-19 said that “sociopathic” capitalism is to blame for the pandemic and other similar disease outbreaks.

– Food industry, deforestation causes of our exposure to “deadlier and more infectious” pathogens

Rob Wallace – the author of Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Sciencespoke to Sputnik May 15 to denounce that “as we industrialise the production of food, we also industrialise the pathogens that circulate among our livestock and crops”.

That mode of production is exposing humans to “deadlier” and “more infectious” pathogens “of a wider diversity” than those to which they would otherwise be exposed, warned Wallace, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Global Studies at University of Minnesota and a consultor with both the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When we log, mine, or replace primary forest with plantation agriculture, we simplify the forest in such a way that deadly pathogens previously bottled up in wildlife are able to spring free”, explained the scholar, who specialises in the study of the historical, geographical and economic factors at play in the spread of diseases.

– Scientists only “cleaning up after” the “c-word”

Pope Francis has devoted his pontificate to insisting on the need for humanity to adopt an “integral ecology” – the conviction that “everything is interconnected”, from the economy, society and culture to human, animal and plant life, health and the natural environment.

That was precisely Wallace’s message, too, in his interview with Sputnik, in which he denounced that, ever since the onset of bird flu H5N1 in 1997, governments worldwide have treated subsequent epidemics from SARS to Zika as unrelated emergencies “at the expense of discussing and responding to the structural causes shared across the series of outbreaks”.

The scientist said the principal cause for the outbreaks is “as much a part of our world as gravity or the sun”: the fact that “centres of capital the world over are funding deforestation and development on forest frontiers across the world, expanding the interface between animal disease reservoirs and newly-placed livestock and the labour tending them”.

“An increasing diversity of pathogens are now spilling over and they have much clearer shot migrating out of the deepest forests to local regional capitals with easy access to the global travel network”, Wallace deplored.

“But none of the public health staff are empowered to talk about or act upon the ‘c-word’ driving these outbreaks”, he continued, adding that the prohibition against criticising capitalism “is the unspeakable prime directive at the heart of global political economy”.

“And so scientists are stuck with the impossible task of merely cleaning up after the epidemiological messes of the very system producing these outbreaks”, the epidemiologist decried.

– “We must reintegrate humanity into the ecologies we share with other creatures”

Pope Francis already warned in Laudato si’ (2015) that “to seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system”.

Instead of partial responses to apparently discrete ecological challenges, the pontiff called – and still calls – for “a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm”.

That was similar to the argument made by Wallace, who said that one of the lessons of COVID-19 is that “we must reintegrate humanity into the ecologies we share with other creatures in such a way that we accept, and respond to, the consequences of appropriating the resources we need to survive as a species”.

The epidemiologist insisted that our “sociopathic way of living” by which “capital can get away with externalising the worst costs of production” – such as climate change, pollution, land grabs and so on – “needs radical recalibration”.

“Otherwise, given the scale of our present civilisation, we threaten to end society as we know it the world over”, Wallace warned.

“That might involve both the bang of a pandemic that kills a billion people and the whimper of drawn-out pulses in shifts in climate.

“We deserve better. We can use our brilliant collective minds and our everyday-apparent compassion to readjust our shared community to another mode of living entirely. Even in the face of what seem such terrible odds. We have no choice otherwise”.

More articles on Novena on our Common Home:

Liberation theologian Boff, on COVID-19: “To return to ‘business as usual’ could mean our self-destruction”

Pope warns in Earth Day General Audience: “We have no future if we destroy the very environment that sustains us”

Francis, on COVID-19: “This is the opportunity for conversion, the time to move from misusing nature, the moment to see the poor”

Conservatives bully Vatican into pulling from website article on environmental benefits of coronavirus

Pope, on COVID-19: “God always forgives. We forgive from time to time. Nature never forgives”

“The cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor cannot continue”: Pope renews “urgent call” to respond to ecological crisis


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.