To mark the International Day against Drug Abuse, let’s have a look at the impact of Covid-19 on addiction services and people who use drugs
By Lucía Goberna – This year’s celebration of the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 26th is undoubtedly a special one. One we will not forget.
For the last four months, we have been completely distorted by the Covid-19 pandemic. We could never have anticipated such surrealist situation. Covid-19 is still expanding in some parts of the world. Other countries are recovering from the pandemic and in fear of a second wave. All people are now trying to live in the physical distancing world, including people with substance use and other addictive disorders.
Challenges for addiction services
We’ve had some time to look into the impact of the pandemic on addiction services and people who use them, especially in Europe.
As pointed out in a study by the European Monitoring Agency for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), there has been a marked overall drop in the availability of addiction services and in the number of people seeking help in Europe.
Addiction treatment services have faced huge challenges amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Among other, they included: accessing enough personal protective equipment for their staff, enrolling potentially infected clients, managing increasing demands for substitution treatment, and addressing staff shortages.
Addiction professionals have seen their job being made much more difficult at a time when addiction prevention, treatment, reintegration, and harm reduction services are needed more than ever.
Substance use disorders are life-threatening conditions for millions. Yet, many addiction services had to limit the scope of their services, or even close down some programmes, due to the strict constraints they had to impose.
Innovative and flexible responses
These services however have adapted rapidly to the situation, providing innovative and flexible responses. For example, when feasible, face-to-face contacts have largely been replaced by telemedicine (by phone or video).
As shown by the EMCDDA study, providers of opioid substitution treatment (OST) had to act rapidly and change the way they provide OST. They’ve done it both to ensure access to medications for those in treatment and to respond to new demands. For example, mobile OST services and new low-threshold programmes have been deployed in several countries in order to ensure access to treatment for the most vulnerable people. In addition, some countries have relaxed regulations on take-home OST, in order to reduce the number of visits to prescribing doctors and services.
Despite the overall decline in help-seeking and service availability, harm reduction experts reported increases in the demand among their client groups. Some of the reasons included an increase in requests for social support (accommodation, food, hygiene, income) from especially vulnerable populations. As well as a need to access low-threshold OST due to shortages in opioid supplies.
According to the Director of EMCDDA, Alexis Goosdeel, the innovation and flexibility of addiction services has been “very important and positive”. These enriching experiences will be probably further implemented once the Covid-19 emergency ends.
Trends outside Europe
While the study by EMCDDA refers to Europe, we have seen similar patterns in other regions. In the US for example, the Addiction Policy Forum conducted a pilot study to better understand the impact of Covid-19 on people with substance use disorders.
Results show that more than one in three (34%) of 1,079 respondents reported changes or disruptions in accessing treatment or recovery support services, and that 14% were unable to receive the services they needed.
The situation in Dianova centres
As an addiction service provider, Dianova has experienced these challenges first-hand. In many of the countries where our network operates, authorities have been able to give addiction services only very little support.
For example, Dianova’s therapeutic communities have taken very strict measures to keep their beneficiaries and staff safe, despite the shortage of personal protective equipment.
These measures included closing access to the programmes for new beneficiaries (or limiting access to screened or quarantined patients), a reduction in group activities within facilities, and, whenever possible, the monitoring and treatment of beneficiaries through phone calls and videoconferencing services.
Despite these difficult circumstances, our professionals have maintained their commitment to provide the most vulnerable with appropriate counselling and support.
Addiction services are essential
The 26th of June provides a perfect occasion for us to step up and demand that addiction be considered on par with other diseases. Preventing and treating addiction disorders is essential and addiction services should therefore be adequately funded!
Should another crisis of this nature arise, addiction services should not be forgotten by the public health system. Substance-related and addictive disorders are a question of public health and addiction services must therefore be considered as essential services.
Today, more than ever, please join the #AddictionServicesAreEssential campaign and spread the message!
 Impact of Covid-19 on drug services and help-seeking in Europe – EMCDDA trendspotter briefing, May 2020
 Presentation of EMCDDA’s Director Alexis Goosdeel to the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs from the European Parliament on the impact of COVID in the drug situation in Europe: link to video (From 9:39’)