The COVID-19 pandemic and the right to health of people who use drugs
Context: According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) people who inject drugs (PWID) make up a significant part of the population that needs to be looked after to eliminate infectious diseases such as those caused by HIV and HCV. This situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As COVID-19 rapidly spread across the globe, governments implemented various prevention measures which not only caused an increase in problem drug use (PDU) because of their negative impact on mental health and socioeconomic conditions but also prompted a decrease in drug services provided. Therefore, new challenges appeared, such as increased demand for drugs and diversification of clients, and new needs. Nevertheless, in clear contradiction to what was needed, the EMCDDA’s initial reports suggested that there was a decline in European drug services both in providing treatment and harm reduction interventions. COVID-19 increased the need to access drug services, healthcare, and support services creating an increased demand for opioid substitution therapy and other medication. Thus, comprehensive, and sustainable policies are needed to combat the public health threats associated with these challenges and to ensure the continuity of care.
Policy Options: The challenging circumstances brought by the COVID-19 pandemic require policymakers need to take action to build capacity and resiliency for those facing drug-related health and social problems. These should include the adoption of integrated strategies that combine drug consumption rooms, substance-specific therapies, provision of free needles and naloxone, primary healthcare, and social support.
Recommendations: The creation of an integrated drug policy framework addressed to European Union member states is necessary to create robust drug services capable of surviving a crisis. This is guided by a relevant policy design and implementation framework, alongside tangible action principles in line with low-threshold service provision.
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