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The Bio-Social Effects

“While body is the Bio-political reality, medicine is the Bio-political strategy.” – Paul-Michel Foucault (October 15, 1926 – June 25, 1984)

Paul Edward Farmer passed away on February 21, 2022 at the age of 62. The Medical Anthropologist and Physician from the US could have perished eight years ago in 2014, when he went to Liberia in order to deal with the Ebola epidemic. At that period of time, the rare and deadly disease (in people and nonhuman primates) rocked Rwanda, Lesotho, Malawi, Mexico, Peru, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Russia and the Navajo Nation. The mortality rate of this extremely high life-threatening infection was high not only among patients, but also among physicians and paramedics. Hence, Ebola has been termed as Caregivers’ Disease, as well.

However, Farmer did manage to remain safe, and helped others during the crisis period. One may recall that Canadian thoracic surgeon Henry Norman Bethune or Indian physician Dwarakanath Shantaram Kotnis did not hesitate to risk their lives to serve the suffering people of China during the Japanese invasion. It was not patriotism or a nation, but distressed people who inspired them to do something for humanity. In 2014, Farmer used to arrive in the US on Saturdays, take rest on Sundays, teach at Harvard on Mondays, and catch a Liberia-bound flight on Monday evenings.

Paul Farmer

Farmer, who held an MD and PhD from Harvard University, was the Kolokotrones University Professor and the Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He was the co-founder and chief strategist of Partners In Health (PIH), an international non-profit organisation that has provided direct healthcare services since 1987 and undertaken research and advocacy activities on behalf of those who are sick and living in poverty. He was also a Professor of Medicine and Chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Farmer spent some time in Haiti for research work, and his life changed there. In Cange village, he witnessed how people submerged the entire village by building a dam on a river in the pretext of development. A girl from Cange arrived in a city in search of jobs. However, she was infected with HIV/AIDS because of the fierce sexual lust of her superior and the military personnel. As Farmer used to think by heart rather than by brain, the girl’s fate prompted him to explore the socio-economic history of Haiti, its contemporary politics, and relationship with the so-called modern world.

While doing so, Farmer concentrated on the social relations of health, and developed a bio-social view of this particular sector. He came to the conclusion that health was not just about medicine, treatment or attack of germs or viruses, but about human relationships. With the help of Norwegian Sociologist Johan Vincent Galtung‘s concept of structural violence (1969), Farmer began his quest for finding out “who lives, and who dies“! Millions of people were dying of diseases, without treatment, not only in Africa, Latin America or the former Soviet Republics, but also in the US. Farmer mentioned in his works how Human Health was inextricably linked to Hunger, Illiteracy, Poverty and lack of a proper Healthcare System. According to the Medical Anthropologist, it is unfortunate that common people were blamed for their poor health, and furthermore, the suffering from various diseases and premature death were the by-products of century-old colonial rule in Africa.

The First World argued that an adulterous lifestyle triggered the spread of deadly diseases in the Dark Continent. The Developed World also came out with a new theory: the treatment of these diseases is not cost-efficient. The West stressed that people, living with HIV/AIDS in Africa or Haiti, could not be treated due to the high cost involved. Farmer and his associates slammed the First World, saying that as the Developed Nations spread deadly diseases in Africa through exploitation, they should also provide the infected people with medicines. Farmer’s research showed how millions of people across the globe were being deprived of their Right to Life through the notion prevention is better than cure. The ruling class did not take any serious steps to ensure “Health for All”, rather they encouraged people to go for Health Insurance, which was basically an unhealthy programme.

Ebola Virus Disease Distribution Map

In 1987, Farmer, along with his colleagues from Harvard Jim Yong Kim, Ophelia Dahl, Thomas J White and Todd McCormack, co-founded Partners In Health, an international non-profit organisation. This organisation has been providing direct healthcare services, apart from undertaking research and advocacy activities on behalf of those who are sick and living in poverty, for more than three decades. Initially, Partners In Health set up a hospital in Haiti. Later, the organisation started its operations in different countries around the world. Farmer used to believe that it would be impossible to boost the healthcare sector without help from the Government. Today, more than 12,000 employees of Partners In Health are working hard in different countries. Farmer passed away in his sleep from an acute cardiac event in Butaro, Rwanda, on February 21, 2022. Interestingly, he breathed his last at a hospital that was jointly built by Partners In Health and the Government of Rwanda.

As Farmer wanted to build proper healthcare facilities in different parts of the world, he concentrated on research work. In spite of his busy schedule, he penned a dozen books and nearly 200 high quality research papers. In his ‘Pathologies of Power‘ or ‘Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History‘, Farmer narrated harrowing stories of illness, and life-and-death in extreme situations in order to interrogate our understanding of Human Rights. He showed how diamonds and other minerals were looted, how people were forced to live in poverty in the pretext of development, and how deadly diseases were spread in those publications. At the same time, he made an attempt to establish the fact that “all human beings have an equal Right to Life”.

This philosophical recognition can help human society reach another height.

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