Zimbabwe grapples with drug abuse issues during pandemic

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Tucked away in a corner of a dimly lit hallway in a dilapidated building in Zimbabwe’s Mbare township, a few drug addicts desperate for recovery prayed and encouraged each other to cut back on their habits. They passed each other a plate of cookies.

Among the members of the support group was Adrias Chidemba, 28, who was selling fruit and vegetables on the streets of Harare and saving to set up a small kiosk.

But then COVID-19 hit and the months-long lockdown shattered his dreams.

“I took drugs and alcohol to ease the stress,” he said, adding that his parents “took me crazy and kicked me out of the house.”

The pandemic has exacerbated a mental health crisis in Zimbabwe brought on by substance abuse, health professionals say. Authorities and activists attribute it to job loss, prolonged school closures and anxiety stemming from COVID-19. The lack of support systems such as affordable rehabilitation centers makes recovery difficult for many abusers.

“It’s catastrophic,” said Dr Johannes Marisa, chairman of the Medical and Dental Practitioners Council of Zimbabwe, who said mental health cases related to substance abuse are “skyrocketing”.

At Sally Mugabe Hospital, one of the largest in the country, the majority of people passing through the psychiatric unit are drug addicts, said Nelson Makore, the unit’s senior nurse.

“We have cases of schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder… but drug use right now is at the top of the list. It puts a strain on our staff members, as a hospital we are not a rehabilitation center,” he said. In 2019, the hospital treated 150 drug addiction cases. This number reached 850 in 2020 and continued to increase in 2021.

The Zimbabwe crisis seems to be part of a global problem.

“Early research studies conducted in different parts of the world seem to indicate relatively high rates of symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and non-specific psychological distress during the pandemic,” said Dr Mark van Ommeren, Head Unit, Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, WHO.

Reports suggest an increase in alcohol-related deaths during the pandemic and studies in a few countries indicate “an increase in the use of cannabis and psychoactive substances with sedative effects”.

Zimbabwean medical professionals know the problems of marijuana use, but now see more and more people turning to harder drugs such as heroin, cocaine and crystal meth to forget the pandemic pressures , said Makore.

With few government rehab facilities, many addicts rely on support groups that meet in seedy places where drug dens often spring up nearby.

“This support group is their only hope. The lack of rehabilitation centers for the poor is killing us,” said Kudakwashe Madzima, head of the Mbare township chapter of the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network. Even as the support group meeting was underway in Mbare, other youths blew marijuana nearby.

Before the pandemic, Madzima said he received an average of two distress calls a week, now he can receive up to five a day. Syringes and vials of cough medicine litter the township, a sign of widespread mistreatment, said Madzima, a former drug addict who had to travel to South Africa for treatment at a rehabilitation centre.

At Tirivanhu Therapeutic Centre, a mental health rehabilitation center about 25 kilometers (15 miles) southeast of the capital, Harare, people lucky enough to find a place there work in the garden, a nursery and with livestock before engaging in counseling and sports sessions in the afternoon.

The offices have been converted into an accommodation wing due to growing demand, said Timothy Sithole, program manager for the Zimbabwe National Association for Mental Health, which runs the house.

“It’s really sad,” he said. “We only have a capacity of 17 people at a time. So there is a backlog, a long list of people ready to get their loved ones admitted here, especially after the pandemic, because we have an increase in drug addiction,” Sithole said.

The center charges $30 a month, but also takes in some “truly desperate cases” for free and receives government assistance. Some private centers can charge 10 to 20 times more, making them unaffordable for many, Sithole said. Some who fail to get support “become wasted lives” and end up wandering the streets, he said.

As Zimbabwe searches for answers, some are already too addicted to consider quitting.

“It keeps me sane,” said Rutendo Dzapasi, 21, as he sipped cough syrup containing codeine.

Next to her in a darkened room in Mbare township, a man carefully inserted a shard of methamphetamine crystal into a piece of a curved fluorescent tube. After frantically searching the room for a lighter, he heated the tube to decrystallize the methamphetamine, then inhaled the steam.

“Problem solved,” he sighs.

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