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Dr. Paul Farmer, cofounder of Partners in Health, wins $1 million Berggruen Prize

Farmer chairs the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and is chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Dr. Paul Farmer sat by the Tengeh Town Bridge during a visit to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 2015.
Dr. Paul Farmer sat by the Tengeh Town Bridge during a visit to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 2015.Jon Lascher/Jon Lascher / PIH

Dr. Paul Farmer, the cofounder of Partners in Health and longtime advocate for access to quality health care in some of the world’s most impoverished countries, has won the $1 million Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture, the Berggruen Institute announced.

The award is presented annually “to thinkers whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world,” the institute said in a statement.

Farmer, who chairs the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and is chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was selected “for his impactful work at the intersection of public health and human rights, the institute said.

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Farmer, who is both a physician and an anthropologist, has worked in global health since the 1980s and has helped build medical systems in under-resourced areas including West Africa and Haiti.

He and his colleagues at Partners in Health developed the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 contact tracing protocol, which has been adopted by dozens of other states.

In a March Globe Op-Ed, as the pandemic was leading to widespread closures across Massachusetts and around the country, Farmer advocated for widespread coronavirus testing and contact tracing, and for a quality he calls “expert mercy.”

“To be effective, outbreak responses must be merciful and humane, too,” Farmer wrote. “People must have food, supplies, safe shelter, of course, but also help with home-bound children as well as paid sick leave. Social support includes safe and rapid transportation to hospitals for the critically ill, since COVID-19 can be a disease with a stormy and unpredictable course. Strong social support, including the assurance that one’s loved ones will have access to quality care if they do fall ill, is the secret sauce of effective outbreak control.”

Dr. Amy Gutmann, Berggruen Prize juror and president of the University of Pennsylvania, said Farmer “demonstrates how best to address this pandemic and prevent future ones. Dr. Farmer’s call to improve public health systems is a matter not only of science but also of politics, economics, and ethics.”

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“In this crisis, like the ones that preceded it, our knowledge far outpaces our will to put effective solutions into action,” Gutmann said in the statement. “Farmer has shown that health and health care disparities worsen the pandemic, and he calls for the social as well as medical support needed by all communities ravaged by coronavirus.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah, chairman of the Berggruen Prize jury and professor of philosophy and law at New York University, said Farmer has transformed “how we think about infectious diseases, social inequality, and caring for others while standing in solidarity with them.”

“He has reshaped our understanding not just of what it means to be sick or healthy but also of what it means to treat health as a human right and the ethical and political obligations that follow,” Appiah said in the statement.

Farmer is the fifth recipient of the Berggruen Prize, following philosophers Charles Taylor, Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve, and Martha C. Nussbaum, and the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who won last year.

Nicolas Berggruen, chairman of the Berggruen Institute, said Farmer “has connected the philosophical articulation of human rights to the practical pursuit of health.”

“He has done this on the basis of new ideas and new analyses and also by connecting the human experience and practical politics of health to enduring challenges of human rights and justice,” Bergguen said in the statement. “Not least, he has led by impressive moral example as an educator, a leader, and a physician.”

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Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.