Drug users community response during the times of COVID-19 pandemic in Manipur: A cursory glance

Gay Thongamba *

Among the different countries affected by COVID-19, various international bodies and media have lauded India’s policy response to COVID-19 pandemic. The early and strategic national lock down along with fiscal stimulus packages for the migrants (free food grain and cooking gas for the poor) has been appreciated widely.

This is primarily done to prevent COVID – 19 transmission and spread at the community level. This is amidst the chaos and unbridled fallout of COVID-19 in many developed countries including Italy, Spain, France, UK, US, Germany and many more, certainly attributed to late policy decisions with regard to social distancing, national lock down and sealing of international borders.

Everyone and every country in the world was unprepared to tackle the novel COVID-19 pandemic, but it has taken down even the best of nations with the most sophisticated and superior health care systems.

This only indicates towards the power of right decision making and policies, which if done timely and if done strategically, like in case of India where strategic steps have been taken to identify containment zones and hotspots to prevent further transmissions, has been pathbreaking.

While we have heard more and more about the migrant and daily wage earners plight in the national media, I think, specific state variations in terms of populations at risk is getting missed somewhere. For a state like Manipur, the huge sub-population of Drug Users in the state, cutting across districts, communities, tribes and religions need special focus.

We know for sure that this group is at-risk of COVID – 19 as many of them are on the streets and a large section of them defy the current lock down, primarily to search and obtain the substance, they use. The situation is worse for the families who in general are not tuned to coping with the signs and symptoms like withdrawal and in many cases aggression, due to break in the supply of the drugs.

Needless to say, many of the rehabilitation centres that can keep the drug use community safe in the times of COVID-19 are at the verge of close down. At this present moment, the drug use community need special care and treatment.

My intention is not to scare anybody. However, we have to understand that; a mistake in prioritising prevention programmes of risk groups could be fatal. Let’s not make the mistake which many of the powerful countries, as mentioned, made. Underestimating the pandemic!

A community is known by the response it makes during these times. It is important to highlight some of the responses to COVID – 19, specific to community of Drug Users at the individual, collective and institutional levels in the state of Manipur.

The detail of some of the efforts may be limited in this article, since there may be many more innovative actions, however, what has been seen as one of the most applaudable step has been, the continued services related to HIV/AIDS, OST, Hepatitis treatment, even during these unprecedented times, owing to the collectiveness of the community leaders, NGOs and concerned Government departments.

Some of the responses and initiatives which, I gather (mainly from the social media) include individuals from Drug De Addiction and Rehabilitation centres; providing food, masks and even sanitizers to many drug users on the streets. One of the centres goes to the extend of providing food grains to the general public, or community at large.

A response by the community of Drug Users at large, which is worth mentioning and could be a model in times to come; is a formation of a collective task force in the name of CRoC – 19. It was formed with 10 (Ten) Organisations as a part of community response, a task force, primarily to ensure safety amongst the current drug user population (including the ones in the rehabilitation centre).

This initiation is undertaken with the understanding amongst the member of Task Force that no specific guidelines exist for Drug Users sub - population during the times of such pandemic (and the likes of its kind).

Amongst others, the primary objective of CRoC – 19 is to highlight emerging risks linked to the COVID-19 pandemic for people who use drugs (PUD) and those providing services for them.

Presently, to minimise risk behaviour and transmission of COVID – 19 amongst the Drug Users, the task force has mobilised CSO, NGOs and Volunteers to work on the issue and has opened a 50 bedded Shelter Home cum Detoxification Centre for the Drug Users on the street.

The Task force initiated with concerned government departments to dialogue and discussion, successfully ensuring food supplies from the government to more than 40 Rehabilitation centres in the state.

The Task Force has also linked up with services providers at the individual and collective level (Targeted Interventions, Rehabilitation Centres, Hospitals, Police Departments and other facilities) to ensure inflow of current Drug Users.

Looking at these responses, is heart-warming. But the question still remains: Is the response enough? Keeping in mind a response is never perfect, there is still room. The need for a more organised or institutionalised response backed by the government for collective good, still remains. The following are some of the related suggestions which we can still ponder:

1. There should be more residential care units for the current drug users (especially for Drug Users on the street) during the times of COVID – 19 pandemic. This should be separated from the existing Rehabilitation Centres which already has inmates in the centre.

2. The time period for such units be kept open till the Pandemic comes to an end. No discharge or release of inmates should be (applies for all Drug Rehabilitation Centre) done till the authority announces the pandemic environment as safe.

3. During the times of COVID – 19 pandemic, all Rehabilitation Centres including Integrated Rehabilitation Centre for Addicts (IRCA) should be kept open 24/7. The concerned authority from the government should provide Passes for all staff of Rehabilitation centres in the state.

4. Medicine and food items should be provided free or at a nominal price by the government for all Rehabilitation centres, in the state.

5. A unified Task Force like CRoC – 19 be backed and supported by the government to act as a coordinating unit with different government departments, CSOs, NGOs and important stake holders while combating COVID - 19 pandemic.

This write up is endorsed by the following 10 organizations which are the constituent bodies of CROC-19 namely
o Community Network for Empowerment (CoNE),
o User Society for Effective Response (USER Manipur),
o Social Awareness Service Organization (SASO),
o Manipur Network of Positive People (MNP+),
o Makers Foundation,
o Care Foundation and

* Gay Thongamba wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The author is Chief Functionary, Makers Foundation, Ipa Ibungo Drug De Addiction & Rehabilitaion Centre, Manipur.
He can be contacted at gthongamba(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on May 03 2020 .

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