Lessons from Leprosy – How Fear, Love and Hope Collide in the Face of Coronavirus

The situation we find ourselves in here in Scotland is unprecedented. As of Monday night we have been advised not to gather socially in pubs, cafes or restaurants; to avoid public transport; to work from home and keep away from mass gatherings of any kind. Many of us feel shocked and afraid, both of Coronavirus itself, and the likelihood of more stringent measures to come.

Over past days, as the situation has rapidly developed, I have seen parallels emerging between the challenges we are facing and those faced by the people we serve – over 7 million people across the globe affected by the disease of leprosy. Suddenly here in Scotland we are gaining some sense of what it might be like to face isolation from other people and from normal everyday life because of a physical illness.

Although leprosy has often been perceived as a highly infectious disease, in fact this is a myth. Coronavirus is far more infectious and we have seen this as the pandemic has spread from country to country, city to city and community to community. However, it is our beliefs that drive our actions and so people have lived in terror of leprosy – and tragically of those who have contracted it. Fear has led to hatred of people affected by leprosy and they have been physically attacked, driven out of their homes and families, and abandoned by society. One lady with leprosy called Nagammal was forced to survive in a goat shed instead of at home with the rest of her family. It is fear that is also driving panic-buying here in Scotland and across the UK. We fear not being able to go out to get the basic supplies we depend on. We want to protect ourselves and our families from harm.

Whether we face the fear of leprosy, or the fear of Coronavirus, it is love that quells fear

The Leprosy Mission Scotland is a Christian charity so the call of Jesus Christ to love our neighbour drives our work supporting those in need, wherever they may be in the world. It is that same call, and loving care for our fellow human beings, that is prompting individuals and organisations across Scotland to reach out to people around us offering practical and emotional support at this time of need. Whether we face the fear of leprosy, or the fear of Coronavirus, it is love that quells fear and softens our hearts so that we are ready, willing and able to help other people.

Coronavirus poses the greatest risks to people who are already vulnerable; those with existing health problems and those who may be more elderly and frail. Leprosy is associated with poverty and the effects of this upon physical health. If you don’t have access to clean water, nourishing food (and enough of it) and facilities to keep clean, your immune system will not be strong and you are more vulnerable to the disease. The Bible tells us that we should defend those who are weak, and that “blessed are those who have regard for the weak” (Psalm 41). In these days we have an opportunity to defend our ‘weaker’ neighbours – whether they live on our street or in another country – by helping and caring. We may find that as we give our time and energies to help others we too are blessed with new friendships and stronger communities.

A handshake, hug, or pat on the shoulder silently says ‘I care!’

Today in Scotland the official advice is to withdraw from usual activities involving other people such as our families, friends, colleagues and churches. If a household member has coronavirus symptoms the whole household is advised to self-isolate for 14 days. We face disconnection from those we love and care for, at least in physical form. The gift of technology means that we can still see one another, talk, laugh and share, even if it is online or by phone. But what we will miss, and are missing already, is the wonder of touch. A handshake, hug, or pat on the shoulder silently says ‘I care!’, and we are beginning to realise we desperately need this.

It is touch that is very quickly withdrawn from people affected by the disease of leprosy. Others, even husbands and wives, will refuse to touch them for fear of catching the disease. Princess Diana, who was Patron of The Leprosy Mission said, “It has always been my concern to touch people with leprosy, trying to show in a simple action that they are not reviled, nor are we repulsed.” Although touching a person with leprosy poses no danger to another person, we know that touching another person can spread coronavirus. As we rightly withdraw from touching others here – to protect them and ourselves – we can reflect on how heart-breaking it must be to have all touch withdrawn from you simply because of unfounded fear.

In the coming days we will realise how wonderful it is to mix freely with others, to share a hug, and to spend time with loved ones. The patterns of normal, everyday life we have taken for granted will temporarily be withdrawn. But there is hope! In time we will have these precious freedoms again and perhaps we will even appreciate and value them all the more. This is what we at The Leprosy Mission are striving to achieve for the precious people we serve. As we defeat leprosy one person at a time with the cure from the disease, we break its power to cause fear, isolation and loneliness. Leprosy will not be beaten in months but in years. However the end is now in sight to defeat this disease forever. If you would like to join us in this fight to make leprosy a thing of the past please make a donation today.

Thank you and may God bless you, your loved ones and your community.

My Gift for people affected by leprosy

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18th Mar 2020

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Opinions are the authors own and not necessarily those of The Leprosy Mission Scotland.