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Speaker: Karen Thornber, Professor of Comparative Literature and of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University
The assumptions, moral judgments, and meanings attached to certain diseases and to people with these diseases frequently lead to stigma and stigmatization – prejudicial attitudes as well as discriminatory behaviors. This is particularly true of leprosy (Hansen’s disease). For millennia, those with this disease and similar skin conditions have been shunned around the world; no medical condition has a longer continuous history of stigmatization and social and physical segregation. Contemporary stigmas are all the more appalling given that Hansen’s disease has been curable for more than half a century.
Literature that engages with leprosy frequently portrays social stigmas toward people with the disease as more brutal, as taking an even greater toll than the disease itself. Exposing the devastating impact of prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors toward people with Hansen’s disease, creative discourse makes clear that reducing if not eliminating stigma must become more of a healthcare and global health priority.
In this presentation I draw on examples of global world literature on leprosy from Korea, Japan, Nigeria, Portugal, the United States, and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i to discuss the strong case literature makes for replacing current structures of stigma and fear with interventions and initiatives that create communities of care.