As the current global pandemic – (COVID-19) claims lives and continues to threaten the global economy, security and overall stability, People who use drugs (PWUD) encounter additional risks and challenges than the general population particularly in West Africa. PWUDs can be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions associated with their drug use, stigma, social marginalization and higher economic and social vulnerabilities; including a lack of access to housing and health care. Moreover, with the current protective measures put in place, including social distancing and periodic lockdowns, it may be difficult for PWUDs, particularly those with dependence, substance use disorders and homelessness problems, to protect themselves from the risk of developing COVID-19.
Some additional risk and challenges PWUDs encounter
Social distancing and stay at home:
It may be very challenging for drug users, particularly the homeless and recreational users to observe social distancing and stay at home, hence putting them at risk of being infected with COVID-19. Both categories who often live in marginalized communities with hardly, if any, basic social services are forced to move from one place to another in search of shelter, social services and livelihood. They often inevitably wind up in ghettos which continue to be crowded with homeless and recreational drug users, albeit restrictions on public gathering.
Arbitrary arrest and torture:
With the militarized enforcement of the stay-at-home and social distancing measures to control the spread of the corona virus in the region, homeless drug users are at greater risk of being arrested for loitering and possibly tortured and detained longer than required.
Sharing drugs and drug use equipment:
Since possession and use of drugs are criminalized in almost every country in the region, recreational drug use often takes place in hidden but often crowded settings where the exchange of drugs and drug-use equipment among drug users is a common practice. This seems unlikely to change, at least not immediately, irrespective of continues plea from local and global authorities for adherence to preventive measures unless with specialized interventions.
Personal protective equipment and information:
A large proportion of drugs users in the region either lack stable employment or are not employed at all making it almost impracticable for them to afford or prioritize such equipment where the resources are even available. On the contrary, many will rather finance their drug use and to a large extent food than buy personal protective equipment. Further exposing them to risks of COVID-19 infection.
Disruption in treatment, rehabilitation and counseling services:
Drug users who are already on treatment, rehabilitation and counselling services, are likely to face possible disruption in their schedules and accessing these services due to the lockdown and other protective measures.
WADPN specific emergency humanitarian responses to PWUD during COVID-19 period:
In order to mitigate these risks and minimize the exposure of PWUD to COVID-19 infection, there is a need for holistic emergency humanitarian support to drug users and drug use settings. WADPN is, therefore, providing emergency response to mitigate the risks and PWUD’s exposure to COVID-19 through our membership in the various West African Countries as follows:
1. Provide information: Design and disseminate among PWUD reader-friendly versions/sticky messages of information on COVID-19 preventive measures, safer drug use and government COVID-19 prevention guidelines/regulations.
2. Distribute Personal Protective Equipment: Distribute and encourage the use of Personal Protective Equipment and hygiene kits such as Face mask; Hand wash; Hand sanitizers; Buckets among individual drug users and drug use settings where they are most needed.
3. Supply basic food items: Supply basic food items particularly to homeless and unemployed PWUDs, in order to minimize their movements and hence exposure to COVID-19 infection and incarceration during lockdown periods.
4. Facilitate continuity of Harm Reduction programs: Facilitate continuity of harm reduction programs including counseling, treatment, rehabilitation and the supply of drug use equipment under lockdown.
5. Limit PWUD’s encounter with criminal justice system: Establish partnership with law enforcement to reduce raids on drug use settings and incarceration of drug users whilst advocating for the release of those in police detention on bail.