Redistributive Justice

Paul Farmer is a humble force of nature, if that's possible. He's a doctor to the poor who walks seven hours in the Haitian mountains to make a hut call, who hugs people freely and with abandon, and who travels thousands of miles a year to care for his patients. This "force," describes Tracy Kidder in his excellent Mountains Beyond Mountains, is passionate, prickly, brilliant, uncompromising, and sometimes irritating. He cajoles, begs, and borrows money and equipment for his hospital in Haiti, Robin Hood - like in his belief that places like Harvard Medical School can and should absorb the loss of drugs and supplies, or the cost of treating a Haitian boy whose body is limp from the weight of a rare cancer.

Twenty-some years ago Farmer set up Zamni Lasante (Creole for "Partners in Health"), a hospital in Cange, one of the most desolate areas of Haiti. Along with comrades John Kim and Ophelia Dahl, and with a lot of money from philanthropist Tom White, their work soon evolved into an entire community-based public health system for that area. Now Partners in Health (PIH), headquartered in Boston, operates medical projects in six other countries, treating minor ailments and major illnesses such as TB and AIDS.

It's a line of work Farmer was pursuing by his early 20s, with a combination of faith - he's particularly attracted to liberation theology and its preferential option for the poor - and realism. He has faith, he told a co-worker, but added, "I also have faith in penicillin, rifampin, isoniazid, and the good absorption of the fluoroquinolones, in bench science, clinical trials, scientific progress, that HIV is the cause of every case of AIDS, that the rich oppress the poor, that wealth is flowing in the wrong direction, that this will cause more epidemics and kill millions. I have faith that those things are true, too."

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Sojourners Magazine April 2004
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