MEXIKO-STADT / LONDON / NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Coronavirus forces self-help groups for millions of addicts around the world close, many struggling alone at a time of isolation and fear and increasing the risk of relapse.
The usual hugs and handshakes are prohibited, while many groups that used to meet in person and privately are now meeting outdoors or online, where those without fast internet or smartphones find it difficult to access.
Around 283 million people around the world suffer from alcohol consumption disorders and 3 million die from alcohol abuse each year, the World Health Organization estimates. Around 35 million people suffer from drug disorders.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), one of the largest networks of support groups to help people stop drinking, is found in 180 countries with an estimated membership of over 2 million.
Like other 12-step programs, AA is decentralized, meaning that individual groups are autonomous and decide whether they want to hold meetings, go online or completely suspend them.
Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University, said the risk of relapse was higher when people were alone and inactive.
"When I go to the meeting, my health is at risk, but when I don't go to the meeting, my health is at risk for another reason," he said.
British addiction support organizations reported that face-to-face meetings and online services had been closed, although a small number of face-to-face events for services such as needle replacement had not yet been completed.
Some US and Canadian groups still met, the General Service of Alcoholics Anonymous said, while others went online or created contact lists to stay in touch.
In Mexico City, AA participants wore masks and did not touch each other, while in the Kenyan capital Nairobi some groups were closed and others met in public parks that were one meter apart.
"It's a crisis in a crisis," said Matthew Thomas, communications advisor to the British charity Action on Addiction and a recovering addict.
He knew two people who had relapsed in the past few days after fighting without personal groups.
"Addiction is a disease of isolation," he said. "Community is one of the ways that people can recover from addiction, and this community has been seriously endangered."
DO NOT HANDLE
AA is better than quitting drinking therapy and helps people reduce health costs. This emerges from 27 studies published by Humphreys and two other scientists this month.
"You can go the same day, you don't have to fill out forms, you don't need health insurance and it doesn't cost money," he said.
Many meetings are still open in Mexico, but with antibacterial gel at the entrance, masks, and anyone who serves their own coffee, said Javier, a 27-year-old AA member.
He said his group, which ranges from teenagers to the elderly, takes the corona virus seriously, but is also concerned, especially about a student member whose classes have been canceled.
"That worries us what will happen to him if he drinks … it also hurts his family," he said.
In Nairobi, countless anonymous alcoholic groups had to disband. While some have been able to switch to video conferencing, most participants either do not have a smartphone or cannot afford the high internet costs.
“The meetings were really important for us. We felt welcome and loved, so it has been very difficult since they stopped, ”said a male AA member in Kenya who did not want to be named.
Although it can be difficult to connect and many do not like less personal online meetings, the move has also brought unexpected benefits for some.
John, part of the British public relations team at Narcotics Anonymous, said he was often the only person to contact the group he founded when he moved to a rural area.
But while the online groups now set up are flourishing, John – whose name was changed at his request – said he was looking forward to returning to the church.
"I don't think there really is a replacement for face-to-face meetings."
reporting by Christine Murray, Sonia Elks and Nita Bhalla; Edited by Claire Cozens. Please thank the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the non-profit branch of Thomson Reuters that covers the lives of people around the world who have difficulty living freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org
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