Madeleine Kunin: On good and evil in the world

Vladimir Putin, left, and Paul Farmer. Photos via Wikimedia Commons

We know there is evil and good in the world. Seldom have we seen evil and good played out on the global stage by two different people right before our eyes.

The contrast between Vladimir Putin, the aggressive tyrant who is marching into Ukraine, and Paul Farmer, the humanitarian doctor, who saved thousands of lives before he died a few days ago.

Putin promotes death as he initiates a war in Ukraine, which will result in thousands — if not millions of grieving parents, bereft widows and fatherless children. It did not need to happen if this dangerous man had listened to the entreaties of diplomats around the world.

On this sunny February day, I grieve because of a man like Putin and look for solace from a man like Farmer.

I had the good fortune to invite Dr. Farmer to my class when I co-taught a course on altruism at Middlebury College a few years ago. He was an extraordinary self-effacing man.

His achievement? Quite simply, thousands of lives saved.

He defied the experts who told him he couldn’t bring life-saving medication to the rural poor in Haiti and elsewhere who were dying of diseases that rich people were surviving. He was told that he couldn’t address pandemics of Ebola, tuberculosis or one of the biggest killers of all: HIV.

Dr. Farmer persisted, carrying medicines into the jungle or wherever the possibility of a cure would take him. He enlarged his influence by founding Partners in Health and working with local medical teams. He traveled almost constantly for his work, arriving in Rwanda, Russia, Peru, Lesotho and more.  He was not cynical, he told The New York Times. “Cynic is a dead end”.

We are forced to ask ourselves the question: How does the world produce such two different human beings? One who is primed to take away lives to satisfy his greedy ambition, and one who is intent on saving lives to fulfill his humanitarian pursuit?

Dr. Paul Farmer is a genuine hero: self-sacrificing and focused. When I co-taught this course at Middlebury I hoped he would be a role model for my students. Several days after his death, we can still turn to his life for inspiration.

“There are so many people that are alive because of that man,” a Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention official said of Farmer. Sadly, there are so many people who will die, because of that man, Putin.

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Madeleine May Kunin

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