June 15, 2021

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The pandemic complicates efforts to curb substance abuse

HARARE, ZIMBABWE – You’ll start his day by smoking a joint. A few hours later, the 34-year-old meets up with friends for a beer at a makeshift stall in Mbare, a high-density suburb of Harare.

In the evening, he took some of the other mind-altering substances on sale in his neighborhood: BronCleer, an illegal cough syrup imported from South Africa; Histalix, a prescribed cough medicine; or crystal methamphetamine, known locally as mutoriro.

A single mother of four who makes $ 2 a day selling samosas and beer remembers first trying marijuana at the age of 15 and gradually switched to harder drugs. However, his substance abuse and addiction worsened considerably during the coronavirus lockdowns, which he attributes to anxiety and boredom as his meager activity dried up.

“It has now become a way of life because poverty has made me find solace in drugs,” says Farai, who is only referred to by his name to protect his safety. “The money I get for the maintenance of my children, I pour it into drugs because I can’t do without it … And there is no rehabilitation but to be arrested and taken to prison or to pay a fine”.

In a country of around 16.5 million people, Farai is among thousands of Zimbabweans struggling with addiction. In 2019, about 180 people in the country died directly from substance abuse disorders, a number that has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, according to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on livelihoods and mental health has intensified the problem.

“There is no rehabilitation other than being arrested and taken to prison or paying a fine”.

In addition to the drug trafficked from neighboring Mozambique and South Africa, people have started ingesting chemicals from TV pipes, industrial ethanol, and boiled diapers to get high, says Wilson Box, executive director of the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network (ZCLDN), a group advocacy founded in 2011.

If left untreated, drug addiction “carries substantial costs to society, including lost productivity, increased health care costs, costs related to criminal justice and social welfare, and other social consequences,” according to a World Organization of Health. health and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime publication, “International Standards for the Treatment of Drug Use Disorders.”

Globally, the UN agency estimates that only 1 in 6 people seeking help have access to rehabilitation programs; across Africa, the number drops to 1 in 18.

In response, the ZCLDN joined a government-led coalition of nonprofits, academics and law enforcement representatives to create a national drug master plan for Zimbabwe. Launched in December 2020, the five-year initiative aims to review existing policies, strengthen education and prevention efforts, and consider alternatives to fines and incarceration.

“We are also pushing for harm reduction and rehabilitation programs for drug addicts,” Box says.

In Zimbabwe, possession, ingestion or cultivation of illegal drugs is punishable by up to 15 years of imprisonment.

Dr Patience Mavunganidze, Deputy Director of Mental Health Services at the Ministry of Health and Childhood, says people can seek help through support groups, municipal clinics, or mental health institutions. At one of Harare’s few private rehabilitation facilities, a one-week counseling and stay costs $ 550; the average urban household earned just 15,805 Zimbabwean dollars ($ 187) in December 2020, according to the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee.

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Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, YPG Zimbabwe

Harare psychologist Lazarus Kajawu examines his office records, noting that nearly three-quarters of his current patients struggle with substance abuse.

Nathan, a 27-year-old resident of Mbare who asked that only his name be used for fear of being identified by the police, says he cannot afford private treatment options and does not want to check himself in a psychiatric hospital. He also fears jail, but says he managed to use $ 2 to bribe an arrest last year.

Of the $ 5 – $ 20 he earns a day as a “procurer” – someone paid by bus drivers to recruit passengers – Nathan spends up to $ 15 on meth, BronCleer and Histalix. On days when he’s not up to par, his friends share what they have.

In 2019, his sister took him to Mozambique, east of Zimbabwe, to get him away from his suppliers. But civil unrest prompted him to return in March 2020, he says. Shortly thereafter, movement restrictions intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus increased the effect of peer pressure as people began taking their drugs more openly around family and neighbors.

“I had quit, but when I got back during lockdown, I started taking trending drugs due to idleness and being surrounded by friends who take drugs,” says Nathan, perched on a bench near the apartment that shares with his grandmother.

Recent efforts by the Republic of Zimbabwe police to stem the crisis have included conducting more targeted operations and partnering with Interpol, South Africa and other countries to address trafficking in the region. A series of raids between January and April resulted in 1,508 arrests of “both street vendors and users,” said assistant commissioner Paul Nyathi, a spokesman for the police of the Republic of Zimbabwe.

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Mass incarceration cannot solve Zimbabwe’s drug problem, however, warns Dr. Lazarus Kajawu, a Harare psychologist who began treating patients in 1998. At the time, he says, his office was receiving some drug users. marijuana every week; now he sees about a dozen patients a week, mostly between the ages of 17 and 21, who also abuse cough syrup, cocaine and methamphetamines.

Noting the growing popularity of methamphetamine, which is both highly addictive and life-threatening, Kajawu insists the country must focus on establishing more inpatient treatment programs.

“To dry the person off drugs, you have to put him in a center where they cannot access the drugs. So it’s very difficult, especially when you are treating them and they come home to where they know places to get the drugs, ”Kajawu says, adding that the blockages have put people recovering from addictions in close proximity to their suppliers.

“The time has come for policy makers to focus on setting up rehabilitation centers because this is really a problem,” he adds. “Lack of willpower has led to lack of support.”

If he had access to a drug treatment center that specializes in substance abuse, Farai says he would try, hoping to cure his addiction and regain the respect of his family. But, he wonders, without a more encouraging economic outlook – during and after the pandemic – would it have been able to stay clean and break the cycle?

“Maybe the government can help me with a chicken farm project that can help me take care of my children,” she says. “I don’t want them to follow my drug use path.”

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