Burdens for those already sufferingDiseases and wounds are bound to leave their marks on the human body, no matter the size. Viruses and germs let the body create specific antibodies to resist them, and a light abrasion leaves a scar on the surface of the skin.
Scars come in different forms. Smallpox leaves marks on the face that eventually become pitted scars, and the disease polio leaves a patient permanently disabled. An appendectomy will leave you with a small scar on your abdomen, but the amputation of any limb will leave a big scar, indeed. In any case, what’s left behind is not a disease itself, but the aftermath of the disease.
However, as Hansen’s Disease has not always been distinguished from the various pathological conditions associated with it, people with the disease - also known as leprosy - have been feared, discriminated against and rejected, even by close friends and family. It’s been this way until quite recently.
But it wasn’t always. In ancient Korea, people who suffered from Hansen’s Disease once had a role to play in talchum, or traditional Korean mask-dancing. Their dazzling displays reportedly couldn’t be further removed from the zombie-like characteristics that were later ascribed to them.
In 1916, the Japanese governor general’s office founded Jahye Hospital on Sorok Island, which had a facility for lepers. American missionaries had previously founded leper colonies in Korea, but the Japanese began to formulate their own policies for Hansen’s Disease patients, deeming that the business of hiding the shame should not fall on the shoulders of the American missionaries.
When the hospital was turned into a rehabilitation center exclusively for Hansen’s Disease patients in 1934, the clients of the leper hospital essentially became inmates. The police forced people into the center, and those patients became prisoners serving a life sentence.
Of course, the isolation was not for the inmate-patients’ sake. Just as a prison is more useful to those on the outside, the rehabilitation center was there to ease the minds of those who feared Hansen’s Disease. As patients faded away on the remote island, the social prejudice against those suffering from leprosy grew worse.
Two years after the start of the rehabilitation center, poet Seo Jeong-ju published a poem titled “Leper,” capturing the suffering of those poor souls. “The leper is ashamed/ of the light of the sun and sky/ When the moon rises over the barley field/ he devoured a baby/ and shed tears as red as flowers all through the night.”
No one is free from disease. Disability is nothing but diseases or wounds with noticeable features. As people take to the streets in opposition to facilities for disabled people moving into their areas, we must remember this and not let people suffer more than they already are.
*The writer is a research professor at the Center for Hospital History and Culture at the Seoul National University Hospital.
By Jeon Woo-yong