Surviving the COVID-19 Era: Stories of People Who Use Drugs from Russia, Ukraine and Norway

10. juli 2020

Article at Drugreporter: Surviving the COVID-19 Era: Stories of People Who Use Drugs from Russia, Ukraine and Norway

The struggle of people who use drugs for survival, dignity and harm reduction in three counties in the COVID-19 era. Read the intriguing report of Hannah Taylor!

Internationally, COVID-19 increased vulnerabilities for people who use drugs. Some of the difficulties facing people who use drugs (PWUD) were location specific, while others were common across countries and contexts. This article covers interviews with three activists from Ukraine, Russia and Norway and shares their insights concerning the effects of COVID-19 on people who use drugs and the responses from the community and governmental levels.

In Norway, it was extremely difficult for PWUD when businesses and services that they relied on closed down in early April. Many PWUD in Oslo rely on low-cost food and housing offers, but these options stopped. Both of Norway’s drug consumption rooms closed down during COVID-19, leading people to consume in more risky conditions and to dispose of materials publicly. 

“It was really heavy for people,” shared Janne Andresen, activist and employee of the Organization for Humane Drug Policy (Foreningen for human narkotikapolitikk).

When Easter came, a generally difficult time for PWUD in Norway because it is a long holiday, the low-cost offers for food and temporary accommodation opened again. The salvation army started to give out soup and food to people. Additionally, health-checking services reopened as did the availability of treatment for sicknesses and abscesses.

“Things got so bad that things started to open again. Because the government saw what they were doing to people,” shared Andresen.

Economic and social hardship

In all three contexts, loss of income was a primary driver of COVID-19 related hardship. Many people who had legitimate income sources had to resort to crime or go without. In Oslo, many PWUD sell a magazine that employs almost 2,000 individuals. When it closed down, it was a shock to the community, leaving many without any income.

Janne Andresen selling = Oslo after the magazine reopened.

In Norway, there was a temporary expansion in availability for opioid substitution therapy, which Andresen and her husband benefitted from. After consulting with their primary care physician, they were prescribed morphine, which allowed them to avoid the street drug scene.

The availability of OST during this time mattered for individuals and for the community.

“It’s smarter to give people substitution medicine than not, because then they can stay inside…You can do like normal people do,” shared Andresen.

“Then there’s a few more that don’t spread the disease.”

However, Andresen stresses that the availability of OST during COVID-19 depended on one’s doctor’s willingness to prescribe. While they are fortunate to have an understanding and compassionate doctor, not all people who use drugs in Oslo or Norway could expect the same. Additionally, it can be difficult for people to get to the doctor for the chance of being prescribed OST. At the time that we spoke, the temporary prescription of morphine was ending.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, availability of take home OST in Ukraine expanded from about 50% to around 90% coverage. There were also new entrants to opioid substitution therapy because the economic hardships posed by COVID-19 which made it more difficult for people to purchase drugs.

However, the take-home dosages were only for 10 days in most places, so it was still necessary for OST patients to travel in order to collect their medication. When public transportation was made available to only essential passengers, like medical staff, this presented a huge difficulty for many PWUD. Ukranian cities tend to be sprawling and difficult to traverse, requiring individuals to reveal up to 40 kilometers to reach their OST site. Without access to public transport, reaching necessary services can become impossible for those who could not rely on personal vehicles or pay for taxis.

Read the whole story at Drugreporter here.

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