Image Description: The background contains a painting of 14th century people being checked for bubonic plague. There is a sign in between two of them with the words “1.5 metres” on it. Below that sign in Pope Francis. On the left side is the logo for Contiki Tours, and in the middle is Deni Campbell snorting chives up her nose with a censored bar covering her nose. 

 

DISCLAIMER: In the context of leprosy, the terms ‘leper’ and ‘leper colony’ have been widely used in the past. However, they carry a heavy stigma and painful history which has only been acknowledged in recent years. Out of respect to the delicate history of this subject matter, all mentions of ‘leper colonies’ will henceforth be referred to as the more linguistically ambiguous ‘leprosoriums’. Please also note, direct quotes from historical sources have not been changed, as to reflect the historical context in which they were said.

 

By Deni Campbell

 

Everyone alive right now is very familiar with the terms ‘quarantine’ and ‘social isolation’. A lot of us are already experiencing it first-hand, and for those of you who aren’t – your time will come too, buddy. Most of us are bored out of our minds. I, for one, have already streamed myself nasal douching after I accidentally snorted some chives – and that was only day three. However, our isolation is softcore in comparison to some historical heavyweights that really pushed the use of social isolation as a form of containment. A notable example that pops to mind is the use of ‘leprosoriums’ to contain people affected with leprosy.

Leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) is a chronic infectious disease of the skin, whereby the nerves, eyes, skin, and respiratory tract can become damaged if left untreated. When we think about leprosy, a lot of us picture terminally ill amputees from centuries past, which is both factually incorrect and frankly a little bit rude. Leprosy does not cause limbs to fall off, it’s not as contagious as was once believed, there is now a cure, and (shock, horror) there are still people living with it today.

Historically, people with leprosy have had a rough trot, so much so that the word ‘leper’ is now considered a derogatory term, despite it being freely used in the past by both common folk and significant religious figures alike. For some reason, most (if not all) religions have historically attached a sort of stigma to the disease, labelling people with leprosy as ‘unclean’ or ‘sinners’. Although it has been said that Jesus “cleansed a ‘leper’” in what was purported to be an incredible feat of goodwill, the Christian faith, along with Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, have historically all supported the exile of people with leprosy from society. In The Book of Leviticus, an involuntary seven-day isolation period was enforced upon those believed to be infected with the disease – the biblical birth of quarantine! We reached out to Jesus for comment, however due to the Pope’s cancellation of Easter this year, we are yet to receive a response.

Because the disease was heavily stigmatised and believed to be highly contagious, formal leprosoriums were established as early as the 700s in the Islamic world, and in the Middle Ages in Europe and India. Eventually, these leprosoriums spread like the plague under the administration of various religious organisations and powered on through into the twentieth century. People from all over the globe who were affected by the disease were put into involuntary quarantine for the remainder of their lives. Some leprosoriums were set up in remote locations, such as mountains or islands, to keep them away from ‘healthy’ populations, and many even created their own currency to prevent risk of infection in outside communities. In some countries, it was fear alone that informed policy makers, such as Japan enforcing laws in the early 1900s to forcibly sterilise and abort pregnancies of people affected by leprosy.

In the 1940s, the first successful treatment for leprosy was discovered (hooray!) and in the 1980s a multi-drug therapy treatment was discovered which can completely cure the disease. From the 1940s onwards, leprosoriums began to disband across the world; however, many governments were slow to act, with people waiting for retribution even up until the early 2000s. It took a fully realised union movement (launched by Zenkankyo) for Japan to repeal discriminatory legislation in 1996 and subsequently issue a formal apology to patients and their families in 2001.

In an unsurprising turn of events, given the blatant disregard for science in public policy, leprosoriums still exist and are active to this day! Japan may have disbanded their leprosoriums, but there are still thirteen active sanatoriums nationally. Additionally, six people have voluntarily chosen to stay in one of the most famous leprosoriums of all time in Molokai, Hawaii, and India has multiple informal leprosoriums spread throughout the country. For some patients, the reintegration into the wider society has been near impossible as leprosy hospitals and leprosoriums are all they know.

Social isolation is awful. I’m angry with myself for getting chives stuck up my nose and I miss my friends. However, my home is not a leprosorium and this isolation period is not an eternal exile for any of us. When the borders reopen and you inevitably return to island-hopping in Greece or Hawaii, ask Contiki to take you to an old leprosorium! But for now, please stay home.

 

Deni is still having trouble getting the chives out of her nose. Will you help her?

Image courtesy of Deni Campbell