COMMENT:

Covid-19 has brought the world many new challenges never faced before. Unfortunately, it has also reminded us of a very old challenge, one we need to overcome right away: stigma and discrimination.

As executive director of the Leprosy Mission New Zealand I was saddened to read a recent Herald article about people who have recovered from Covid-19 but are now experiencing stigma.

Stigma is a line running through many of the stories I hear every day from people affected by leprosy in our overseas projects. As a disease of poverty, a leprosy diagnosis can have a devastating impact on already vulnerable families.

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Sadly, we have more to fear from stigma than we do from Covid-19 or leprosy. Stigma plays a key role in the on-going prevalence of leprosy, one of the world's oldest diseases.

Leprosy has a cure that once administered ensures the disruption of transmission within 72 hours. Yet the stigma lingers.

We can learn about stigma from people affected by leprosy. They have been battling it for thousands of years.

Stigma occurs when someone sees another person negatively based on a specific characteristic or circumstance. This can lead to discrimination in all aspects of their life. Leprosy stigma can be intergenerational. It's not uncommon for children to be excluded from school because their grandparents had leprosy.

People affected by leprosy have shared with me that stigma causes them to feel like second class citizens. They carry a deep shame even after they are cured. It is upsetting to hear that some New Zealanders who have recovered from Covid-19 are experiencing these same feelings.

Today, in some parts of the world, there are still discriminatory laws against people affected by leprosy. Leprosy can be grounds for divorce and exclusion from opportunities to work, travel or education.

In a situation like this would you step forward to be tested if it meant you may have your rights stolen from you? For many people, especially those living in poverty, this can be one burden too many.

Today, four million people around the world are affected by leprosy. One person every two minutes is newly diagnosed with leprosy, totalling over 200,000 new cases every year.

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This is why the Leprosy Mission fights stigma and discrimination just as much as administering health care and hospital services and offering employment training.

We need to stay alert to the impact of stigma and make sure we stand with all people against discrimination.

No one should be stigmatised due to a health condition, or any reason for that matter.

I have hope because in New Zealand the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us the power of kindness. It is a powerful action to reach out with kindness and love.

Educating ourselves with facts is a great first step. Let's all be aware of our attitudes and behaviour, choose words carefully and reach out to support and include everyone.

If we can practice kindness to ourselves and kindness to those around us, we will bring forward the day when stigma and discrimination are ended for good.

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To donate to the Leprosy Mission's annual appeal for Papua New Guinea visit leprosymission.org.nz

Gillian Whitley is the executive director of Leprosy Mission New Zealand