In India’s Chennai, a Community of People Who Use Drugs are Scripting an Inspiring Story during Lockdown

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OST medicines being distributed to community members in Chennai.

OST medicines being distributed to community members in Chennai.

Almost half of Tamil Nadu’s total COVID-19 cases are from the state capital Chennai alone, which is also the most populous district of the state’s 37 districts. The state government was among the first to launch measures against COVID-19 and has announced several relief measures which included financial support, free ration, and other essential commodities in the wake of lockdown. Despite all these efforts and relief; one group that continues to be most affected and sometimes neglected is the community of people who use drugs.

Along with other marginalized groups of women, elderly, young people, persons with disabilities, and migrants, people who use drugs can experience the highest degree of socio-economic marginalization. An emergency like COVID-19 coupled with the pre-existing global policy impasse on whether people who use drugs should be dealt with criminal sanctions or public health-based approaches is making the community of people who use drugs more vulnerable than others. The fear of criminal sanctions associated with drug use is also preventing the community from accessing any relief measure that may be intended for them. Further given their poor health condition, stigma and poor access to support systems are increasing their risks of more outbreaks amongst this community i.e., HIV, HCV, TB, overdose to name a few.

2Tamil Nadu’s Drug Users Forum (TNDUF) – a community network of people who use drugs is responding to this situation with support from Alliance India. The community mobilization efforts and formation of this network were amplified against the backdrop of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the state and particularly the capital Chennai. TNDUF’s overall purpose is to be at the forefront of defending the human rights of people who use drugs and improving their access to health and welfare services. In Chennai, the forum is currently prioritizing reaching out to the street-based and homeless community members who have limited to no access to the welfare measures and health services. The forum together with the Hopers Foundation – a CBO (Community-Based Organization) that provides harm reduction services and OST for people who inject drugs – has identified and linked over 30 street-based homeless community members to OST (medicine buprenorphine) services. The OST services are provided under the National AIDS Programme through the Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society.

In little over a month since its inception, TNDUF is already setting some exceptional examples of community-led advocacy especially in the ongoing context of a health cum humanitarian emergency. The unique challenge of responding to the needs of the urban, poor and street-based members of their community required the forum to do something out of the box to ensure they had access to shelter, toilets, clean water, and nutritional support besides access to live-saving medicines like buprenorphine and Antiretroviral (ARV). TNDUF responded by first doing a quick resource mapping exercise and reached out to the railway authorities and after a week of convincing, they were granted permission to use the railway platforms across Chennai for letting people who use drugs sleep there, have access to the railway toilets and clean water which is critical for preventing further spread of the COVID-19 by way of handwashing.

3For the nutritional needs TNDUF reached out to various charities and faith-based organizations and was able to convince a local Jain Temple which is now providing readymade nutritional meals to the community members. TNDUF continues to respond to emergencies as they come and in the process are supporting its most marginalized members who are often not found in the food and relief distribution queues for the masses given their unique risks and vulnerabilities. While there may not be the most perfect solutions in the form of interventions and welfare measures, TNDUF is proving that every life counts – even if it is almost invisible; and that they can be saved even if they are most vulnerable.

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