As I mentioned last week, I had been planning to share some thoughts on the sudden passing of Dr. Paul Farmer until the Russians invaded Ukraine. Since there’s little to do right now besides panic over tweets, I’m going to go ahead and do so.
Farmer was an icon of humanitarianism—a man who changed the philosophy and practice of public health in poor countries all over the world, and thus helped to save untold millions of lives. From humble beginnings as the son of a high school teacher and a supermarket cashier in Western Massachusetts, Farmer rose to a status of peerless fame and influence. He was routinely referred to in popular media as a “saint.”
This was a typical photo:
By the time I first met Paul, in Haiti, his star had been burnished to a shine. It was 2009. He had long since moved from his longtime base in the Haitian village of Cange—the impoverished rural hamlet where he co-founded the medical NGO Zanmi Lasante, known to the rest of the world as Partners in Health. I had just finished writing a feature on the stunning success of AIDS treatments and prevention in Haiti, a story in which PIH and Farmer played a major role. (Of particular import was PIH’s “accompagnateur” program—in which Haitian HIV patients are trained to help others keep up with their medicine. This program helped disprove the racist, classist skepticism of many in the United States and Europe: that cutting-edge HIV drugs would be wasted on the nonwhite poor.)
The story was thus flattering to PIH, and thus Dr. Farmer—a fact which an irate Farmer-hating public health expert (there are indeed some, who make up for their small numbers with a commitment to being as irritating as possible) had hammered me about day and night for weeks. When Paul next arrived in Haiti, he sought me out to thank me for the piece.
This was easy to do because Farmer knew exactly where I’d be: He was coming with Bill Clinton, who was making one his first visits as U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti. On our way up to the flood-damaged city of Gonaïves, Farmer told me, excitedly, that he that made sure the former president had read the article. He also made sure I got some face time with the ex-president, so Bill Clinton could also tell me, personally, that he had read my article (about how great PIH and Paul Farmer were). The introduction in turn was of course also a favor to me —