PIH: Paul Farmer on the Power of Community

Paul Farmer, editor-in-chief of Health and Human Rights and founding director of Partners in Health, delivered the principal commencement address at the College of the Holy Cross on May 25. In his speech, centered on a personal anecdote he dubbed “The Story of the Inhaler,” Farmer looked to impress upon the graduating class the inequality that exists in the world and every person’s obligation to combat it.

He recounted a particular experience in Haiti where he was serendipitously able to save a man’s life from a near-fatal asthma attack, a chronic condition that is easily preventable and treatable in affluent countries. He emphasized “this is a story about unequal access to the fruits of modern science. This is everybody’s problem.” This inequality was starkly apparent as he treated this man with his own personal inhaler, an item so easily accessible in the United States.

The twist in Farmer’s story is that he had at first refused, several times, to see the patient because of his own hurry to return home and because of a lack of any medical supplies with him. However, the community doctor and the man’s wife were able to convince Farmer to come with them. He saw immediately the man’s condition was a very severe, close-to-death asthma attack and he delivered enough albuterol into the man’s lungs to save his life.

The takeaway ideas of this story, Farmer summarized, were threefold. First, “we inhabit a bizarrely unequal planet” where the gap of inequality simply continues to rise. This translates into an inequality in rights, access to healthcare, and benefit from new technology.  Second, Farmer noted that there indeed exists “the miracle of human solidarity, when linked to both meaningful action and compassion, is something all of us, all of you, can foster in your lives.” He urged his audience to expand their social networks in promoting equality and privilege to all they interact with.  Last of all, Farmer pointed out that “inequality and injustice can make fools of us all.” He wanted to draw attention to, one more time, the injustice of inequality and that while we may have privileges that give us things such as access to basic healthcare, and there are many others do not.

Partners in Health explained that together, “these human social networks…allow us to see with greater clarity the inequalities that persist and grow today despite modern technological advances.” Working with each other, people are capable of closing the gap of inequality and guaranteeing basic rights to all.

Read the Partners in Health report here.

Read Farmer’s Holy Cross Commencement address here.

Photo: By Partners In Health (www.pih.org) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons