Stigmatised travellers exposed to the Coronavirus quarantined at former leprosy asylum that remains home to those bearing the scars of the ancient disease

Those affected by the world’s newest disease are living at a leprosy hospital alongside those affected by the world’s oldest disease in a bid to contain the Coronavirus outbreak.

Hendala Leprosy Hospital on the outskirts of Colombo is Sri Lanka’s first quarantine facility. 

Travellers arriving from Italy, South Korea and Iran are now quarantined on the hospital site for 14 days for precautionary measures.

Should they develop symptoms of the Coronavirus during this period they will be taken to hospital immediately.

The Sri Lankan army is assisting the government in converting buildings on the hospital site into a quarantine facility.

The Sri Lankan government has assured local residents that they are not at risk of COVID-19 spreading to the community.

But regardless protesters this week took to the streets outside the hospital fearing an outbreak.

News of the quarantine facility has also caused many to learn that there are people bearing the scars of leprosy still living at the hospital.

Although leprosy has been completely curable with multidrug therapy since 1982, people are afraid of the disease. Many have seen the terrible disabilities, including blindness, a person can develop if left untreated. 

There is much talk on Facebook groups on the Coronavirus quarantine facility at Hendala Leprosy Hospital. Posts display people's relief that they are well after playing cricket in the grounds of the leprosy hospital. At the time they believed the facility to be a relic of the past.

Head of Programmes at The Leprosy Mission England and Wales, Sian Arulanantham, said there are only 32 people treated for leprosy now living at the Hendala Leprosy Hospital.

At one time the facility imprisoned 900 patients. Residents living at Hendala Leprosy Hospital still remember being handcuffed and brought in by the police.

“These 900 patients were greatly feared and shunned by society," Sian said.

“They were taken away from their families and never saw them again in a bid to contain the spread of the disease.

“As a result of the introduction of multidrug therapy in the 1980s, the patients were cured and no longer needed to be segregated from society. But they had nowhere to go.

“Their leprosy had gone untreated for so long that they had developed disabilities. This meant they would still be discriminated against outside of the hospital walls.

“The Sri Lankan government has been kind to the now mainly elderly residents of Hendala Leprosy Hospital. It has assured them that it will remain their home and community for the rest of their days.”

The Leprosy Mission provided training to the residents of Hendala Leprosy Hospital so that they could work in the carpentry workshop on site.

“I’ve visited Hendala and it is a happy place where the patients have become each other’s families,” said Sian.

“Whenever there is a new outbreak of a disease, like the Coronavirus, I always fear the entirely inaccurate comparison with leprosy. 

“My heart did sink when I read the inevitable headline that the ‘Coronavirus is the new leprosy’. It just re-emphasises the unnecessary fear and stigma surrounding leprosy.

“It is ironic that the people quarantined after exposure to the Coronavirus and those bearing the scars of leprosy are living alongside each other. Although there is no contact between the two groups, they are both subjected to fear and ignorance outside the hospital's walls.

“It is only fear, ignorance and a lack of access to healthcare that sees the world’s oldest disease remain a 21st Century disease.”

Dr Joy Sabanathan is a retired ENT specialist at Kingston General Hospital living in Worcester Park, Surrey.

The 77-year-old also has a home in her native Jaffna. She worked at Hendala Leprosy Hospital in the 1970s, a time when there was no cure for leprosy. She now volunteers with The Leprosy Mission in Jaffna, working on a leprosy detection programme.

“I was not worried about getting leprosy when I worked at Hendala whatsoever,” she said.

“Although it was not curable at the time, it is a not a highly contagious disease and I was young and healthy.

“I worked with the patients, lived on their premises, would touch them and look after them.”

Dr Sabanathan said the leprosy patients were segregated and lived in men and women’s wards. This was to try and prevent the spread of the disease to future generations.

But naturally relationships did blossom.

“There was a couple who met at Hendala who went on to have two children. One contracted leprosy and the other one didn’t.

"Therefore one was able to go outside of the hospital and get married and the other one still lives there.”