Almost half of Tamil Nadu’s total COVID-19 cases are from the state capital Chennai alone, which is also the most populous district of the state’s 37 districts. The state government was among the first to launch measures against COVID-19 and has announced several relief measures which included financial support, free ration, and other essential commodities in the wake of lockdown. Despite all these efforts and relief; one group that continues to be most affected and sometimes neglected is the community of people who use drugs.
Along with other marginalized groups of women, elderly, young people, persons with disabilities, and migrants, people who use drugs can experience the highest degree of socio-economic marginalization. An emergency like COVID-19 coupled with the pre-existing global policy impasse on whether people who use drugs should be dealt with criminal sanctions or public health-based approaches is making the community of people who use drugs more vulnerable than others. The fear of criminal sanctions associated with drug use is also preventing the community from accessing any relief measure that may be intended for them. Further given their poor health condition, stigma and poor access to support systems are increasing their risks of more outbreaks amongst this community i.e., HIV, HCV, TB, overdose to name a few.
Tamil Nadu’s Drug Users Forum (TNDUF) – a community network of people who use drugs is responding to this situation with support from Alliance India. The community mobilization efforts and formation of this network were amplified against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the state and particularly the capital Chennai. TNDUF’s overall purpose is to be at the forefront of defending the human rights of people who use drugs and improving their access to health and welfare services. In Chennai, the forum is currently prioritizing reaching out to the street-based and homeless community members who have limited to no access to the welfare measures and health services. The forum together with the Hopers Foundation – a CBO (Community-Based Organization) that provides harm reduction services and OST for people who inject drugs – has identified and linked over 30 street-based homeless community members to OST (medicine buprenorphine) services. The OST services are provided under the National AIDS Programme through the Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society.