GreenLight mourns the loss of global health champion Dr. Paul Farmer

Dr. Paul Farmer is joined by GreenLight’s Katie Letheren at Partners In Health-supported J.J. Dossen Memorial Hospital in Harper, Liberia, in 2016.
Photo by Sulaiman Nazier

Boston, February 23, 2021—The news of the death of Dr. Paul Farmer–global health champion, medical anthropologist, and co-founder of Partners in Health–at the age of 62 shocked the world yesterday.

Dr. Farmer inspired countless individuals around the world to join him in the fight for global health equity and social justice, including many at GreenLight who believe that advanced biotech solutions–including vaccines and therapeutics as well as safer alternatives to chemical pesticides in agriculture–need to be accessible to communities everywhere and not just the world’s richest nations.

A role model who dedicated his life to correcting injustice, Dr. Farmer believed that everyone has a right to quality healthcare. He started a global movement in this spirit, co-founding the nonprofit Partners In Health in 1987, a global health organization that seeks to bring the benefits of modern medical science to the most vulnerable communities in the world.

Whenever Dr. Farmer visited Partners In Health sites around the world, he focused on teaching staff at patients’ bedsides and often spent hours with each patient.

When top leaders asserted that providing HIV treatment to citizens of low- and middle-income countries was impossible, Dr. Farmer would disagree until views evolved and coordinated global action was taken; he simply rejected the notion that financial cost should be a barrier to receiving treatment.

As the author John Greene highlighted in his reflection piece yesterday: “The world said, ‘We must accept a world where 1 in 17 women die in childbirth in Sierra Leone,’ and Paul said, ‘No, we don’t,’ and so PIH is now partnering with that country’s health ministry to build a world-class maternal care hospital in Sierra Leone’s Kono District.”

Dr. Farmer created a new language centered around global health equity. From decolonizing “global health” and creating a preferential option for the poor, to understanding and addressing the social determinants of health, he broke down traditional ways of thinking about disease and poverty.

In his many books, including Pathologies of Power, To Repair the World, and his most recent, Fevers, Feuds and Diamonds, Dr. Farmer continually shed light on the fact that cross-sector partnerships are required to correct structural violence and the social forces that drive millions into poverty and the grip of disease.

In a recent Forbes interview with Madhukar Pai, Dr. Farmer shared the following when asked about global vaccine equity as it relates to the current Covid-19 pandemic:

“We sit in the partitioned amphitheater of vaccine nationalism, and it’s not clear that we’re going to change our audience members in the first act. It’s not a surprise that elected officials tend to look out for the people they represent; that’s part of the local social contract. But there are many ways of underlining the need for global solidarity in the face of Covid-19, whether for vaccine distribution or intensive care for those with severe disease.

I can’t help but encourage those in positions of privilege to contribute generously, advocate passionately, and make equity a central goal of the process, rather than an afterthought. At the same time, there’s nothing like a respiratory ailment to remind us that until everybody is safe, nobody is safe. The history of smallpox and its eradication provides just one piece of evidence that when complacency kicks in and vaccine coverage wanes, new hotspots of transmission arise. Covid-19 is a sharp reminder that everyone should be concerned with making vaccines available, regardless of ability to pay, the country in which you happen to be born or live, or any of the other criteria that have long been abused to deny equitable access to the fruits of modern science.”

Dr. Farmer passed away in his sleep in Butaro, Rwanda. GreenLight mourns this immeasurable loss and sends our deepest condolences to his family, friends, and global community. We will honor him by remaining committed to playing our part in the fight for global health equity.