Launched in 2016, the award honors thinkers whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world. Selected from hundreds of nominees, Farmer, a medical anthropologist, was honored with the $1 million award for his "impactful work at the intersection of public health and human rights" over a nearly thirty-year career building lifesaving medical care systems in resource-poor countries, most notably Haiti and in West Africa.
Leveraging lessons learned from the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Farmer and his colleagues at Partners In Health have helped design and implement the public health response to COVID-19 in Massachusetts. Their approach, which is centered on an intensive contact tracing program that includes resource coordinators who help people isolate safely, has been adopted by dozens of other states.
"In this crisis, like the ones that preceded it, our knowledge far outpaces our will to put effective solutions into action," said Amy Gutmann, Berggruen Prize juror and president of the University of Pennsylvania. "Farmer has shown that health and healthcare disparities worsen the pandemic, and he calls for the social as well as medical support needed by all communities ravaged by coronavirus. He also emphasizes — while doing all in his own power to address — the special burden of caregivers. And he helps explain why, for all its importance, the arrival of vaccines will not replace the need for basic public health measures."
In addition to his roles at PIH, Farmer is the Kolokotrones University Professor and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and the author of twelve books about disease, human rights, and power dynamics, including AIDS and Accusation, Haiti after the Earthquake, Pathologies of Power, and Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History.
"We are proud to award Dr. Paul Farmer the Berggruen Prize for transforming how we think about infectious diseases, social inequality, and caring for others while standing in solidarity with them," said Kwame Anthony Appiah, chair of the Berggruen Prize Jury and professor of philosophy and law at New York University. "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."