Speaker: Paul Farmer

Partners in Health: Repairing the Many Pandemics of Our Times

Paul Farmer is a doctor, anthropologist, and “world-class Robin Hood” who has dedicated his life to improving health care for the world’s poorest people. Since 1987, he and Partners in Health, the nonprofit organization he co-founded, have been revolutionizing the field of international health care, pioneering novel community-based treatment strategies that demonstrate the delivery of high-quality care in resource-poor settings. In 2010, when an earthquake demolished Haiti, Farmer was there. In 2014, when the Ebola virus erupted in Sierra Leone, Farmer was there, too. Whereas others might understandably flee such crises, Farmer runs toward them.

Referring to the pathology of power structures, Farmer once confessed, “I can’t sleep. There’s always somebody not getting treatment. I can’t stand that.” Known as “the man who would cure the world, his life story was captured by Tracy Kidder in the New York Times bestselling book, Mountains Beyond Mountains.

As the second of six children to a free-spirited father, Farmer became aware of the bigger world and its inequalities from his family’s frequent moves, from Massachusetts to Alabama to Florida. Farmer’s father, a salesman-turned-teacher with unconventional inspirations, converted an old school bus into a mobile home in which the eight of them lived for several years. There was no running water, and their power supply was erratic. At times, the family lived out of tents; a boat, too. His mother was a cashier at the Winn-Dixie supermarket.

For what they lacked in stability and material security, Farmer’s parents read Shakespeare and other great literature to their children. They recognized Farmer’s “huge brain,” and supported his academic endeavors. After graduating from high school as both valedictorian and senior class president, Farmer attended Duke University on a full scholarship. He went on to Harvard, where he earned both a PhD in medical anthropology and an MD.

It was during college that Farmer took his first trip to Haiti, igniting in him a passion and an anger to be an agent for change. The poor had little to no access to basic medical care, and training opportunities for local doctors and nurses were gravely lacking. With the help of a Haitian priest, Father Lafontant, and a young English woman, Ophelia Dahl, who had come to Haiti as a medical volunteer, he founded a community-based health clinic, Zanmi Lasante, which would grow into a first-rate hospital that served about a million people.

Shortly after that seminal visit, HIV/AIDS began to spread in the Haitian urban slums, and the suffering pressed Farmer to do more. Two years later, in 1987, Farmer and Dahl collaborated with Todd McCormack, a former Duke classmate, to found Partners in Health in Boston. Farmer’s innovative methods and tenacious spirit led to cost-effective ways for treating infectious diseases. For the next few decades, Farmer would teach medical students for four months every year in the hospitals of Harvard University—where he is one of only 25 University Professors, and is also Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School—as well as treat patients in Haiti, Rwanda, and other “medical deserts.” He lived on a plane almost as much as being on the ground—an adventurer’s spirit reminiscent of his roving childhood.

In addition to direct patient care and international healthcare delivery, Farmer has written extensively on health, human rights, and the consequences of social inequality with hard-hitting titles like To Repair the World and Pathologies of Power. His writings cover the epidemics that plague our times—from tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS to racism, inequality, and poverty. Most recently, his book Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History examines the Ebola epidemic through his bifocal lens of medicine and anthropology.

Farmer is the recipient of numerous honors, including the Outstanding International Physician Award from the American Medical Association, the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, and a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, all $220,000 of which he donated to start a research program at Partners in Health. He serves as the United Nations Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Community Based Medicine and Lessons from Haiti, and is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

With the current Covid-19 pandemic, Farmer’s experience at the forefront of multiple epidemics has made him a voice of caution, reason, and compassion. As with Ebola, he urges “expert mercy.” Responses to the global coronavirus pandemic, he says, must combine interventions to save the sick, and slow the spread of disease with humane care across cultural and societal settings. The Ebola outbreak revealed, for example, that social distancing is almost impossible in settings of food insecurity or crowded slums. Farmer has routinely talked about the need for “staff, stuff, spaces, and systems” to respond well. Covid-19 is no different. And communities of color are once again the most vulnerable.   

“The idea that some lives matter less,” Farmer asserts, “is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”

Join Pavi Mehta and Cynthia Li in conversation with this remarkable humanitarian.

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