The NZ Drug Foundation is warning that comments made in the media blaming the ‘underbelly of Te Awamutu’ and drug use for the spread of Covid-19 could cause the area’s outbreak to worsen, because people may be scared to come forward for testing for fear of stigma and prosecution.
“It must be frustrating and frightening for people in Te Awamutu right now, coping with COVID-19 infections in the community and lockdown restrictions. And it is understandable that there may be growing annoyance with people perceived to be breaking the rules,” says Executive Director, Sarah Helm.
“But we need communities to come together to defeat this virus, not turn on each other, otherwise the virus will win. The reality is there will be a range of people from all sorts of backgrounds infected in that community.”
“Accusations and speculation create stigma and fear, which the virus thrives on because it breeds shame, division and secrecy. People may become too frightened to come forward for testing if they think people are going to label them a drug user, which is incredibly unhelpful to the COVID-19 response,” she says.
The NZ Drug Foundation has been issuing harm reduction advice to encourage people to follow Alert Level rules, while recognising some people have addictions that are difficult to break.
“It is possible to support people to observe Alert Level restrictions and stop the spread of Covid-19, whether or not they are using drugs,” says Helm. “We have been encouraging measures like contactless drop off, similar to when people buy alcohol.”
The Drug Foundation is also reassuring people that it is illegal for the police to use information given to contact tracers for prosecutions.
“People should feel reassured that they can come forward and get the same access to healthcare and confidentiality whatever their drug use status. People also do not need to reveal to contact tracers ‘why’ they have been in contact with other people, this is not their concern. They are only interested in the interaction itself,” says Helm.
Fear of repercussions like prosecution might also stop people from getting tested.
“We all need to pull together and defeat COVID-19 here. It is heartening to hear concern for people experiencing addiction being put into MIQ, and it is vital that they get the medical assistance they need,” says Helm.
“I know for some people drug use may seem like the worst thing someone could be doing at a time like this, but like with alcohol it is important to recognise some people have addictions that do not simply disappear conveniently during tough times. Compassion and community support would be more successful in helping resolve addiction and COVID-19.”
Survey participants also reported that barriers to accessing services, resources and information were high.
A group of powerful synthetic opioids that were first detected in the country just a year ago may have already been linked to several deaths.
95% of respondents reported positive effects, in a study that looked at both prescription and black market cannabis use.