COVID-19 has brought the world many new challenges. Unfortunately, it has also reminded us of very old challenges, ones that Jesus addressed and that he has called us to overcome today: stigma and discrimination.

The Leprosy Mission New Zealand is saddened by various recent news reports about people who have recovered from COVID-19 but are now experiencing stigma and discrimination.

Their experience has been likened to that of people affected by the ancient disease of leprosy. People affected by leprosy can teach us lessons about stigma because they have been battling it for thousands of years.

What is stigma and discrimination?

To explain stigma in simple terms, it is when someone sees you in a negative way because of a characteristic. Discrimination is when someone treats you in a negative way because of this characteristic. Stigma and discrimination often go hand in hand.

People affected by leprosy tell us that stigma to them is the feeling of being second-class citizens and the deep shame they are made to feel even after they are cured. It is upsetting to hear that New Zealanders recovered from COVID-19 are experiencing these same things.

Discriminatory laws

One of the heart-breaking stories heard in our ministry work was that of a little girl and her brother who were not allowed to go to school because their grandfather had had leprosy. Even though he had been cured, the stigma was so great that it had travelled down two generations to stop this little girl from accessing an education that could bring her out of the cycle of poverty.

Today there are still many discriminatory laws towards people affected by leprosy in different parts of the world. It is the direct result of stigma allowed to take hold. These laws include ones that mean that people affected by leprosy are segregated in their community. The disease is grounds for divorce and people are barred from work, travel or education.

In a situation like this would you step forward to be tested if you thought you might have leprosy when it could mean you have your rights stolen from you? For many people especially those living in places affected by poverty this is just one burden too many.

And this is why the work of the Leprosy Mission fights stigma and discrimination just as much as administering its health care and hospital work for people affected by leprosy.

Lessons about stigma

We need to learn the lessons about what stigma can result in 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.

In New Zealand the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us the power of kindness. We have witnessed it in family relationships, neighbourhoods and from the thousands of supporters of the Leprosy Mission in New Zealand.

As a Christian organisation we follow the example of Jesus who singled people out who were experiencing stigma, not to ostracise them but in order to welcome them in. It is a powerful thing to reach out with kindness and love.

Today we ask you to help fight stigma with kindness. Educating ourselves with facts is the first step, then being aware of our attitudes and behaviour, choosing our words carefully and reaching out to support and include everyone.

If we can practice kindness to ourselves and kindness to those around us we will see a world that has risen to take on the challenge of stigma and discrimination and end it for good.

Contributor: Sarita Divis

Sarita Divis is the media contact for the Leprosy Mission New Zealand.