Skip to main navigation menu Skip to main content Skip to site footer


Vol. 8 No. 3: September issue

The Grammar of Leprosy: Temporal Politics and the Impossible Subject

April 5, 2021


This research article critically interrogates the implications and unintended consequences of the World Health Organization’s purported elimination of leprosy as a public health problem. I explore how leprosy has been portrayed (for nearly a century) as something from the past, recalcitrantly lingering on into the present, but surely about to be gone—a temporal framing I call the ‘grammar of leprosy’. I recount the experiences of Daniel, my interlocutor in Tanzania, whose existence became a problem for his doctors. This problem they ultimately resolved by fabricating negative test results in order to record what they already knew: leprosy had been eliminated. I also analyse how researchers working for Novartis (the supplier of leprosy’s cure) continue to push for an always imminent ‘elimination’, while field researchers repeatedly caution about the potential problems of this approach. Finally, I reveal how the grammar of leprosy operates through a complex set of temporal politics, pulling into its orbit and being enabled by multiple interwoven temporalities. I conclude that—due to this grammar, the impossible subjects it produces, and the temporal politics through which it operates—leprosy elimination campaigns may have dire consequences for the lives of people with leprosy today, impeding rather than enabling treatment.