ICYMI: Reddit AMA on Coronavirus with PIH Co-Founders

Posted on Mar 12, 2020

PIH co-founders Ophelia Dahl and Dr. Paul Farmer
PIH Co-founders Ophelia Dahl and Dr. Paul Farmer fielded questions Tuesday in a wide-ranging Reddit AMA, in which they urged optimism and support for strong health systems amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Courtesy of Partners In Health staff

Partners In Health Co-founders Dr. Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl reflected on decades of experience Tuesday while urging a Reddit audience to fight disease outbreaks with the model of strong health systems, prevention, and pragmatic solidarity that PIH employs in 11 countries around the world.

“Remaining optimistic and hopeful about the promise of your own engagement is much, much better than being or becoming cynical,” Dahl wrote in the live, two-hour Ask Me Anything, in which scores of participants asked about a variety of topics, including COVID-19, social justice, health education, marginalized communities, and more.

The online event commemorated what would have been the 100th birthday of late Boston philanthropist Tom White, a PIH co-founder, committed donor, and longtime friend of Dahl and Farmer.  

Farmer spoke about the power of friendship in global health when responding to a leader of a non-governmental organization in Indonesia, who works with children facing stunted growth and asked how Farmer deals with feelings of hopelessness.

Farmer framed his answer in the grief he and colleagues felt in Haiti, after the country’s devastating earthquake in January 2010.

“We were always more than the sum of our parts in those weeks and months right after (the disaster). That’s the lowest I’ve been, and friends always shore each other up,” Farmer wrote. “But the real reason I distrust hopelessness is because when we’re talking about things like childhood stunting, in Indonesia or elsewhere, we’re talking about hopelessness on behalf of others, which they can ill afford.

Dahl and Farmer reflected on past experiences throughout the question-and-answer event, showing the composure and lockstep principles crafted over decades of building health systems and responding to crises in challenging, low-resource settings.

Those challenges now include COVID-19, which the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic a day after the co-founders’ AMA. One question dealt with how PIH approaches such situations.

“Very much the same way that we have approached the other epidemics in our midst, which is to say to make sure you have a robust health system in place,” Dahl said. “Having supplies, health professionals, and access to care. In areas where there isn’t that, make sure you work hard to put it in place.”

Farmer added a complementary perspective as an infectious disease doctor.

“Communicable pathogens almost always have some treatment and (COVID-19) would seem to have several. We’re not talking about the specific therapies, but rather the nonspecific ones, supportive and critical care,” he said. “Since this is a communicable pathogen, protecting the caregivers is a prime concern. Once we link this to our mission to make a preferential option for the poor, we’re going to find ourselves needing more staff, stuff, space and better systems. And that’s what our colleagues are doing from Haiti to Rwanda to Russia.”

Read the full AMA on Reddit, here.

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