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Why we have to be more careful with language during Covid-19

A blog by Brent Morgan, International Director of The Leprosy Mission

Since the global pandemic began earlier this year, we have had many news reports of people claiming that catching Covid-19 left them feeling like ‘lepers’ as their communities stayed away from them. We’ve seen frontline staff claiming the same. Over the last few days we even had the Italian foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio saying that Italy should not be treated as a ‘leper colony’.

This is a very old problem, one that we have to bring an end to. Throughout history, the odious term ‘leper’ has been used as an insult to those affected by leprosy. No person should ever use the term ‘leper’. On top of this old challenge, we need to tackle a new challenge: the comparison between leprosy and Covid-19

Some hateful terms should never be used

There are terrible words and phrases used all over the world that are meant to insult and subjugate minority groups. I’m sure you can think of many. These are horrible terms and most have been rightfully banished from polite company. Any public figures using those terms are appropriately held to account.

Unfortunately, the term ‘leper’ is one term that too often escapes public scrutiny and is used readily by newspapers and politicians, on TV shows, and in literature. This term offends people affected by leprosy. Not only that, but it is used in anger and disgust in communities affected by leprosy across the world to confer upon people affected by leprosy a sense of uncleanness. Whenever this term is used, it makes people affected by leprosy second-class citizens. If you’ve ever spoken to a person affected by leprosy about what it feels like when people use this term against them, you’ll know that it’s heart-breaking.

Because of this term, people affected by leprosy face rejection. The term creates stigma and this stigma means that people affected by leprosy have their right stolen from them. They struggle to access safe housing, jobs, community, and even their families. No term that can have such a horrible impact should ever be used.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought this problem soaring back and so this is a good time to call on politicians, newspapers, and anyone else, to add this horrible term to the collection of others that have become unprintable.

Leprosy should not be compared to Covid-19

There is a secondary problem with the reporting surrounding Covid-19 and leprosy. When the two diseases are compared, it is as though they are both highly contagious and to be feared. That is simply not true and it also adds to the stigma faced by people affected by leprosy.

Covid-19 is a highly contagious disease that has led to a worldwide shutdown. Meanwhile, leprosy is a mildly infectious disease that 95% of the world population is immune to and any leprosy patient who has undergone MDT treatment for 72 hours is no longer contagious. It is a disease that still ruins lives all over the world, but comparing it to Covid-19 is at best unhelpful.      

When we compare Covid-19 to leprosy, we perpetuate the myth that leprosy is highly contagious. This has a devastating impact on people affected by leprosy because people start to stay away from them. No one will work with them, live with them, or even go near them.

Leprosy is nothing like Covid-19 and the comparisons between the two are far from harmless. It is having a real impact on people affected by leprosy today.

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us the power of care. Care for ourselves and care for those around us. Let’s extend that same care to people affected by leprosy.

Strategic Priorities