Paul Farmer discusses public health and Ebola crisis

Four years ago, the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa shook the world with extensive media coverage of its impact in the region and the public health threat faced by the world. Around 28,000 people contracted the virus, and about 11,000 died from it. Here at Vassar, we have a unique opportunity to understand the questions and debates around the Ebola outbreak through a campus visit by Professor Paul Farmer, a Harvard medical anthropologist, physician and co-founder of Partners in Health. He will be lecturing on structural violence and the Ebola epidemic in the Villard Room at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 1.

President Elizabeth Bradley, who is also a public health expert, noted, “[Farmer] has been an inspiration for a whole generation of people. He demonstrates the best of the field of Global Health. I am honored and delighted that he is visiting Vassar.”

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the world was on edge. In China, airports were full of warnings about the disease and announcements were made on airplanes about the lethality of Ebola. In the United Kingdom, Ebola screening stations were set up at airports. Despite the panic, the grim projections and intense debates on how to counteract the apocalyptic Ebola virus, the outbreak did not become a global pandemic.

While a few Ebola cases did surface in the United States, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain and Nigeria, the epicenter of the outbreak was in three countries in West Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Even in these countries, the disease was mostly confined to impoverished urban areas and rural communities. The Ebola virus spread through bodily fluids of infected people as well as through contact with certain animals—in this case, bats. The 2014 West African Ebola outbreak was not the first case of the disease in Africa; there have been smaller recorded outbreaks of the disease in the Congo, Uganda and South Sudan since 1976, when the Ebola virus was first identified.

If outbreaks of Ebola in other parts of Africa had been contained fairly quickly, how did the 2014 West African case spiral out of control and become so dire? This question is being debated amongst scholars of all disciplines interested in the character of the Ebola virus and global and national public health systems, as well as in politics and culture in the most affected countries.

Scientists researching the Ebola virus are trying to understand how the virus spreads from animals to humans, and how best to treat infected people. The outbreak has also brought the lack of training and resources for healthcare providers in West Africa to the rest of the world’s attention. The impact of enslavement and colonialism, the neoliberal and capitalist structures resulting from them and the ecological damage and economic inequality they have created are also part of the debate.

One of the scientists at the forefront of fighting the 2014 outbreak was Farmer, who was personally involved in the medical efforts to contain the West African epidemic. He is currently working with survivors of the disease in Sierra Leone and Liberia and is completing a book on his experiences and research on the outbreak.

Beyond his work on the outbreak, Farmer has dedicated his life to providing healthcare for people left without it and fighting against inequalities and infringements of human rights, especially in West Africa, Rwanda and Haiti.

A student who plans to attend Farmer’s lecture, who asked to remain anonymous, echoed this positive view of Farmer’s work, stating, “I feel that Dr. Farmer’s work highlights the political economy of Ebola. What made this [outbreak] possible has to do with the colonial structure that was left behind, and people need to appreciate the fact that colonialism still exists today.”

Understanding the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa is, for many people, about trying to grasp how inequality, inefficient healthcare structures and political corruption limit the ability of people— especially those living in poverty—to take proactive and preventative action to safeguard their well-being. As Farmer iterates in his advocacy for universal healthcare and medical work on behalf of those in countries with inefficient healthcare systems, understanding the outbreak is about viewing the world through the eyes of its most impoverished people. He is committed to developing proper healthcare systems that offer services for people who would otherwise be unable to attain them. He is deeply sensitive to historical injustices, especially amongst communities of color, and he remains critical of the structures that deprive people of healthcare, representation and agency.

Professor of History Ismail Rashid, who worked with several departments and programs and the Dean of Faculty to bring Professor Farmer to Vassar, commented, “[I hope] Paul Farmer’s experiences in West Africa would inspire students on how to engage people in other parts of the world in ethical and empathic ways.”

Farmer will meet with students at the Alumnae House at 4 p.m. Thursday to discuss his work.

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