"If there's ever been a clarion call for massive change, it's now," Dr. Paul Farmer told members of the Taft community this week during a video question and answer session with the COVID-19 pandemic at its core.
Dr. Farmer is a world-renowned infectious disease specialist, medical anthropologist, and Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is also a co-founder of Partners in Health, a nonprofit organization built on the belief that quality health care is a universal human right and dedicated to fighting injustice by providing care first to those across the globe who need it most. Before engaging with Dr. Farmer this week, Taft's AP Geography students met him and his Partners in Health co-founders through the documentary and organization origin story, Bending the Arc. The story begins in Haiti.
"My first trip to Haiti was in 1983, between college and med school," Dr. Farmer explained. "I didn't know or couldn't have said [then] that is necessary to break the cycle of poverty and disease in order to see human flourishing and what we often call development. I wasn't prepared emotionally intellectually to be there, but the good thing is I got to go back again and again and again."
Along with fellow Harvard Medical School student Jim Yong Kim and activist Ophelia Dahl, Dr. Farmer secured funding to open a clinic in rural Haiti. They quickly understood that the most meaningful way to effect community health was to increase their understanding of the community—by raising cultural sensitivity, partnering with local organizations, and by building trust that would allow them to bring live-saving health care into people's homes. Since its inception, Partners in Health has changed the health care landscape around the world, from their work treating drug-resistant tuberculosis in Peru and bringing antiretroviral HIV therapy to Rwanda, to battling Ebola in West Africa and providing PPE, infrastructure enhancements, and training health care workers in Infection Protection and Control (IPC) to help stem the tide of COVID-19.
"The reason we started Partners in Health, when we were students, in fact, was because we thought, 'What good is an analysis of an epidemic if you can't intervene to help people survive it?'" Dr. Farmer told Taft students. "I am grateful to Haiti for putting me on this path."
During the question and answer session, Taft students in Bingham and Zoom-ing in from around the world posed pointed, thoughtful questions about COVID-19, allowing Dr. Farmer to address the challenges of battling a global pandemic. A few of his thoughts follow.
On the accessibility of vaccines to citizens of countries without the capacity to manufacture them:
As of this week, countries with 13% of the world's population have bought about half of all available vaccine stock. And that will remain true, at least until the summer. How can we address such terrible disparities in the world? In 2003, George Bush launched a worldwide AIDS relief program. Pediatric HIV in Rwanda was wiped out in a decade, financed by an aid program, then by a government program, showing us that one's relative financial standing does not determine whether you have access to a treatment....It is up to us as citizens to put pressure on manufacturers, governments, and international bodies to say our goal is the equitable distribution of the COVID vaccine. Even if we don't do that out of generosity, we need to remember what happens when a patch of the world is not vaccinated for something.
On the cost of healthcare:
We need a national healthcare system that provides a safety net for everyone.
On the impact of COVID variants on vaccine efficacy:
We have data on the variants from South Africa, Britain, and Brazil. Those variants are already in the US; one is likely to become dominant...Scientists are able to design vaccines with the variant mutations in mind very quickly; we're going to see a whole new era in vaccinology. It's over my head, but I know enough to be deeply impressed by the promise of redesigning these vaccines based on the mutations.
On what the next 10 years might bring for Partners in Health:
To deepen our work and make it more impactful two things will be important:
1) Training or capacity building, in the form of educating nurses, doctors, and other heath care professionals;
2) Generating new knowledge through research.
"There is nothing like a new pandemic, or a pandemic caused by a novel, newly identified pathogen to make that point. Think of all the things that have happened in one brief year. Where would we be without research?"
On the lessons learned from fighting AIDS— the first public health crisis Dr. Farmer faced after medical school—that can be applied to COVID-19:
Let's have [our work] be bold, let's have it rely on science, and let's rely on massive investments in scientific research and the development of new tools. We need tools for prevention—a vaccine, diagnostics—we need rapid diagnostics—and we need better therapies. There must be a big investment in the science, and we must treat this as a public health challenge.
Watch the full conversation with Dr. Farmer here.
photos courtesy PIH Twitter: Masked to fight the spread of COVID-19; battling Ebola in West Africa