Dr. Alice Cruz, the UN Human Rights Council special rapporteur on leprosy, has been kept on her toes since her appointment last November. In addition to issuing her first report to the Council in June, she has found herself having to call out politicians for their use of leprosy as a metaphor.
First it was France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, who said of nationalists that you could see them rise “a bit like leprosy all across Europe...” He was followed by Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, who described what he called European “hypocrisy” over migrants as the “real leprosy.” A few months later it was the turn of the Portuguese prime minister, Antonio Costa, and the Bangladeshi shipping minister, Shajahan Khan, who both used the term in reference to opposition political parties.
That politicians should reach for the word at all is testament to its staying power as a metaphor for all that is abhorrent, so deeply ingrained is its negative symbolism—and testament, therefore, to how hard it is to discourage its use. But as Dr. Cruz points out, politicians should choose their words carefully and avoid promoting misunderstanding of the disease, especially when their countries have approved the Principles and Guidelines for the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons Affected by Leprosy and Their Family Members.
Let’s hope the politicians—and everyone else—take note.