Paul Farmer 1959-2022

The Editors

Partners in Health, the charity he cofounded in 1987, has announced that Paul Farmer died today in Rwanda. He was a professor of global health at Harvard and an infectious disease physician at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The most recent of his many books was Fever, Feuds and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History. He also wrote four pieces for the LRB: on the coup that overthrew Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti; on Ebola (twice); and on global healthcare inequality.

In the thirty years since I began my medical training in Boston, Massachusetts, I’ve cared for critically ill patients in Harvard’s teaching hospitals, as well as in Haiti, Peru, Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa. Study of healthcare financing was almost wholly absent from the curriculum at Harvard Medical School. But after working in rural Haiti I felt it was a necessary topic. I have seen patients grievously injured, often at the point of death, from a weapon or neglect or a weak health system or carelessness. Some died; those who had rapid access to a well-equipped hospital had a better chance of survival. I convinced myself, at first, that the differences in outcome must have been due to worse injuries, greater impact, more blood loss. But with time and broader experience, I was tempted to record the cause of death as ‘weak health system for poor people’, ‘uninsured’, ‘fell through gaping hole in safety net’ or ‘too poor to survive catastrophic illness’. The people I lived with in the hills of central Haiti had a concise way of putting it: these were ‘stupid deaths’.

And of Ebola in 2014, he wrote:

I’ve been asked more than once what the formula for effective action against Ebola might be. It’s often those reluctant to invest in a comprehensive model of prevention and care for the poor who ask for ready-made solutions. What’s the ‘model’ or the ‘minimum basic package’? What are the ‘metrics’ to evaluate ‘cost-effectiveness’? The desire for simple solutions and for proof of a high ‘return on investment’ will be encountered by anyone aiming to deliver comprehensive services (which will necessarily include both prevention and care, all too often pitted against each other) to the poor. Anyone whose metrics or proof are judged wanting is likely to receive a cool reception, even though the Ebola crisis should serve as an object lesson and rebuke to those who tolerate anaemic state funding of, or even cutbacks in, public health and healthcare delivery. Without staff, stuff, space and systems, nothing can be done.