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Women in India

During this time of isolation, remember the lifelong isolation that people affected by leprosy face

As the coronavirus pandemic grips our world, it is not surprising that those whose lives are affected by this deadly virus feel isolated; separated from their families, friends and communities.

For many people affected by leprosy, isolation is a way of life. People diagnosed with leprosy experience negative social attitudes and stigma which can have devastating consequences on their lives and on their family members.  It also impacts schooling, work, and marriage.

Shockingly, almost half of people affected by leprosy face mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. Some have considered taking their own lives. Many more go to great lengths to conceal the fact they have had this disease, for fear of the stigma that persists in countries where leprosy is endemic.

Recently, while visiting a clinic in Nepal, we met a young woman called Gita. She had come to The Leprosy Mission’s clinic for a check-up, as she was diagnosed just over a year previously. Gita told us that she and her family had not revealed to friends and neighbours that she is affected by leprosy as they are worried about the prejudice they might face as a result. 

Gita's story is not unusual - in fact we often hear stories like hers. For millions of people worldwide, mental health problems are a lifelong consequence of experiencing the stigma and discrimination of leprosy. 

Those diagnosed with leprosy often suffer exclusion and isolation such as being thrown out of their families, losing their job or being made to feel unwelcome in public places. 

Since cases of COVID-19 have increased, we've often observed people using the word 'leper' to describe how they feel having to navigate life right now - keeping distance from people, being unable to leave  their home or do the things they usually enjoy. It's a new way of life that does feel isolating and at times very lonely.

However, for some years now it has been accepted and agreed by leprosy communities and organisations that to end the stigma and discrimination that Gita and others like her fear, the word 'leper' must not be used. 

It is a derogatory word that is outdated and is associated with someone who has been rejected, ostracised or regarded as an outcast. 

It's easy to assume that 'being treated like a leper' is a thing of the past, but the pain of stigma and  
discrimination for people affected by leprosy and their families is very real. Today, having leprosy still means disability, discrimination and poverty for many people worldwide. 

Leprosy is a very different disease to COVID-19: it's caused by a bacterium that is only mildly infectious and does not require people affected to be isolated. 95 per cent of people are immune to it. And yet, prejudice persists.

At a time when the world feels filled with uncertainty and fear, let's make sure that we treat people affected by leprosy with dignity and understand the struggles they still face.