Agents of Impact | May 1, 2020

Paul Farmer and Jim Yong Kim, Partners in Health

The team at


ImpactAlpha, May 1 – Partners in Health earned its reputation battling tuberculosis and cholera in Haiti, HIV/AIDS in Rwanda and Ebola in West Africa. Now, the global nonprofit is bringing its model of people-powered community health to the COVID crisis in its home state of Massachusetts.

Led by co-founders Paul (“Mountains Beyond Mountains”) Farmer and Jim Yong Kim, who went on to lead the World Bank, Partners in Health has teamed with the Commonwealth to identify, trace and treat every COVID-infected person in the state with a virtual support center of 1,000 people.

Young people, in particular, are ready to step up as community health workers; in two weeks, the COVID Community Team received more than 15,000 applications. Such contact tracing “armies” are the hallmark of responsible reopening plans in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, California and elsewhere (see, “Crushing the coronavirus is good economics. Hoping it goes away is not).

Crushing the coronavirus is good economics. Hoping it goes away is not.

Partners in Health honed its community-based strategy in three-decades of fighting pandemics and outbreaks around the world. Community health workers – accompagnateurs in the Navajo Nation, acompañantes in Mexico, or “village health workers” in Malawi – accompany people on their journey through sickness and back to health.

In the COVID crisis, Farmer says, human-to-human contact tracing, even if virtual, is vital to early detection and triage for people who could slip through the public safety net and be at risk for rapid health declines. “This will help us identify the already afflicted but unaware,” he says.

Kim convinced Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to take up the approach in a late-night phone call at the end of March. Data and experience from countries that have suppressed COVID-19 leave us no choice but to pursue such an expanded response, he says. It’s time to go on offense against the virus.”