The General Election: Half a world away from the UK

Peter Waddup, CEO - The Leprosy Mission Great Britain

When people ask what I do for a living, they are often surprised by my response. 'Leprosy? I didn't know leprosy still existed', is a typical reaction. Don't get me wrong, this response is completely understandable. How often do we hear of leprosy in the news? Our relatively high living standards saw Britain's last indigenous case recorded in 1798! So it is always a privilege to be able to fill people in on the bigger picture.

As with so many things, we need to zoom out to put things into perspective. Leprosy is far from a niche disease. It is one of the World Health Organization's 20 Neglected Tropical Diseases. Diseases affecting the world's poorest that shouldn't even exist in the 21st Century.

We often read that we live in an interconnected world. A world where we are all interdependent on each other through trade, politics, culture and technologies. But I would argue that many of the communities I have visited in Asia and Africa are cut off from this world. They have no access to healthcare, education, technology or even a clean water supply. The people live pretty much as they would've done when The Leprosy Mission was founded 150 years ago!

Many times I have spoken to people who have no idea how old they are as their births were never registered. They fall completely outside of society. If a woman has a difficult delivery then mother and baby both tragically perish. If a crop fails then families are left starving. When you add in the prejudice that goes hand in hand with diseases like leprosy, these communities are as disconnected as they could possibly be.

Yet there is so much we can do as a global community to connect with those on the very fringes of society. Climate change does not respect national boundaries, nor do pandemics or even conflicts. Yet climate change is the biggest challenge we face to sustainable development. At the same time it is so relevant to us here in the UK too. So in the run-up to the General Election we need to think so much bigger than our lives on the British Isles.

With climate change firmly on our political agenda, we must protect the communities most affected. Just this week there has been coverage in our mainstream media of the extreme heatwave in India. It is telling when you look at the statistics that the most deaths are in the very poorest States of India where we work.

In fact, climate change is even fuelling the spread of Neglected Tropical Diseases like leprosy. One of our team recently returned from visiting one of our projects in Sri Lanka. He was visiting a community on the island of Vellanai where the fishermen are now struggling to make a living. This is because the monsoon winds have weakened because of climate change. As a result, there is less plankton offshore, and, therefore, less fish. This has caused real financial hardship. As a result eight of the women from the community travelled to the capital Colombo to work in a garment factory. It appears these women contracted leprosy during their time in Colombo and brought it back to the island. We suspect this as the Sri Lankan government previously said that leprosy had been eliminated on Vellanai. Yet when our team member visited the island, 13 women had been diagnosed with leprosy. This example really brought home to me how vulnerable the people we serve are to climate change.

While both Labour and the Conservatives won't commit to restoring UK Aid to its rightful 0.7% of GDI, there is still a pot of money there! We do not need to choose between helping the world's poorest or spending money at home. We are part of a network of charities asking our Government to prioritise defeating extreme poverty in the spending of the UK Aid budget. Afterall, the UK did commit to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The set of 17 targets range from ending poverty to making sure everyone can access healthcare. We are way off track in their progress. Therefore I would urge you to ask any parliamentary candidate knocking on your door in the run up to 4 July about their plans to prioritise the Goals.

I find it comforting that even in the absence of political will, our loyal supporters are there. Their commitment is unfaltering. Without their incredible support, the world would be more divided than we could possibly imagine. They are fuelling an outreach to marginalised communities across Asia and Africa. The experience of my overseas colleagues is vast. They are fired by their passion to defeat leprosy and transform lives. I am so thankful each day to everyone in the UK who makes this life-changing work possible.

So while I'm asking you to think bigger and wider in the run-up to the UK General Election, I'm also asking you to zoom in on every life changed. Every person has a story.

Niger copyright Ollivier Girard .jpg

Photo: copyright Ollivier Girard

Take a look at this picture of a remote community in Niger. It is a dry and remote village that almost conjures up the feel of a film set. The villagers must walk 13km to collect water. It's almost impossible for us to imagine their daily lives. Yet thanks to people in the UK, our team in Niger was able to take the cure for leprosy to two of the people photographed. While they both had symptoms, the antibiotic cure was received before nerves were damaged and subsequent disability developed. What an incredible gift to receive from someone thousands of miles away whom they have never met! What a beautiful heart the person who gave it has! It really is so heartening and encouraging to know just how much we as individuals can do to heal a broken world.