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June 14, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

Human Rights Hero: Dr. Anthony S. Fauci

by Hon. James A. Wynn
He is a man, an ordinary man, who is being asked to play God, and he is being punished because he cannot be God. And that is a terrible situation to be in. To be the lightning rod for all of us. But he is there and he has been this incredible fighter for us...

Larry Kramer

Public health advocate and playwright, referring to Dr. Anthony Stephen Fauci’s efforts during the AIDS epidemic

Calm, but invariably frank, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci is a public servant and an icon of the COVID-19 era. Speaking with a distinctive Brooklyn lilt, he is this country’s voice of stability in the face of a bewildering and deadly pandemic. As the nation’s most prominent public health official, he keeps medicine and data at the forefront, and, in doing so, gracefully shoulders the heavy burden of being a “lightning rod” for public reaction to our nation’s COVID-19 response.

To be sure, Dr. Fauci is familiar with that unenviable position. As the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he has helped seven presidents navigate horrendous epidemics: AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and Zika, to name a few. Particularly during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Fauci received significant heat from activists who were understandably angered by the government’s lackluster response. Instead of taking this personally, however, Dr. Fauci asked himself, “[What would I do if] I had a disease in which the result was that I would die no matter what, and the government was telling me, ‘You can’t try anything that might work under any circumstances’[?]” His answer: “I’d be ramming down the doors, too.”

Acting with that understanding, Dr. Fauci allied himself with the activists. And based on their recommendations, Dr. Fauci convinced others to alter clinical trial requirements, thereby increasing the number of patients who could access HIV/AIDS treatments and saving numerous lives. As a consensus builder, he brought activists to the table as patient advocates—a practice that continues today in all National Institute of Health drug-testing committees.

Dr. Fauci's long career showcases a remarkable ability to work collaboratively with disparate populations.

Dr. Fauci's long career showcases a remarkable ability to work collaboratively with disparate populations.


Dr. Fauci has maintained this focus on the human dimension of disease throughout his entire career. He personally treated the first person to contract the Ebola virus on U.S. soil; as he explains, “one gets unique insights into disease when you actually physically interact with patients.” And he famously hugged that patient upon her recovery, in part to help dissipate the stigma associated with the virus. Dr. Fauci has taken the same approach of focusing on the human dimension of disease during the COVID-19 crisis: Amid the chaos of the pandemic, he still manages to treat patients daily.

Along with running a national research institute and treating patients, Dr. Fauci keeps Americans informed of emerging developments in the fight against the pandemic. When confronted with contradictory information, he remembers his experience during the AIDS crisis and looks to patients and other doctors on the ground. As he put it, “[i]f you really want to know what’s going on, you have got to talk to the people in the trenches.” While that view has at times put him at odds with political leaders, it has also engendered trust in him among millions of citizens.

In this time of great division, I would argue that there is no one better suited to the task of serving as our nation’s voice of reason, bridging the gap between the public’s understanding of the disease and medical science. Dr. Fauci’s long career showcases a remarkable ability to work collaboratively with disparate populations, including those who have been directly and intimately affected by crises. He is, as Larry Kramer aptly put it, an “incredible fighter” for all of us. That makes him one of the greatest human rights heroes of our time.

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Hon. James A. Wynn

United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit; Chair, Executive Board, ABA Center for Human Rights

Hon. James A. Wynn serves on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and as chair of the Executive Board of the ABA Center for Human Rights. Previously, he served for 20 years as an appellate judge on both the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of North Carolina. His legal career also includes 30 years in the U.S. Navy Reserves, where he served as a military judge and retired at the rank of Navy captain.