Gamuchirai Zhou has battled for the past six months to find a psychiatric hospital that can take in her 22-year-old son in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare as beds at public health facilities have become limited due to a surge in the number of drug addicts seeking treatment.
Zhou’s son started suffering from a mental illness early last year due to drug abuse that began while he was at secondary school.
Treatment for drug abuse
She said her son becomes very violent, especially when they refuse to give him money to buy drugs.
“The doctors at government hospitals say he can’t be admitted because the facilities are full and most of the patients suffer from drug induced mental illnesses,” Zhou said.
“They just give him an injection to calm him down, but the problem is that a few days down the line he would be taking drugs and the violent behaviour starts again.”
The family cannot afford treatment at private health institutions because, like many households in Zimbabwe, their income took a severe knock following the outbreak of Covid-19.
Hopewell Mungani, the clinical director at Sally Mugabe Central Hospital psychiatric unit, confirmed the crisis at public health institutions, saying they were overwhelmed.
Some patients are now being sent to prison for three months to “cool off” instead of being treated at hospitals.
“Drug abuse has reached crisis levels,” Dr Mungani said. “We admit patients who are in crisis, for example those who are psychotic, suicidal or homicidal due to drug abuse.
“We do not have capacity for long term rehabilitation.”
He said ideally, substance abuse patients need a dedicated and robust community follow-up before and after they are discharged from hospital, but Zimbabwe’s health system is failing to cope with the number of people seeking treatment for drug-related problems.
“We only send dangerous patients to Chikurubi (Maximum Security Prison), for example, those that are repeatedly violent or those who are committing crimes to fund their drugs [addiction] or because they are intoxicated,” Dr Mungani added.
The crisis in the health system mirrors Zimbabwe’s growing problem of drug abuse, especially among youth, which worsened with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a country with limited job prospects for its young people, many are being drawn into dangerous substance abuse with little chance of complete rehabilitation.
Zimbabwe has an estimated 90 percent unemployment, with young people most affected.
The World Bank last year said the outbreak of Covid-19 had pushed 1.3 million Zimbabweans into extreme poverty, which left the number of extremely poor citizens at 7.9 million or 49 percent of the population.
It said 500,000 Zimbabwean households had at least one member who lost his or her job, and experts say these are some of the developments that have pushed the problem of drug abuse in the southern African country to crisis levels.
Johannes Marisa, president of the Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe Association, said mounting drug abuse in the country was linked to the deepening socio-economic crisis.
“We are in trouble as a country,” Dr Marisa said. “[Many] youths are resorting to drug and substance abuse and this is largely due to high levels of unemployment.
“It has become fashionable in some locations to use drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine, sodium polyacrylate from diapers and alcohol.”
Other common drugs are marijuana, cough medicines and alcohol.
Philani Ncube, a topflight league football coach, stirred the hornet’s nest when the country resumed football activities after the Covid-19 lockdowns when he claimed that 80 percent of the players in the division were now hooked on drugs.
“I can tell you that almost 80 percent of Zimbabwean football players are on drugs,” Mr Ncube said then.
“These boys have taken drugs as part of their lifestyle. I can tell you these boys can pass a Covid-19 test, but not a doping test. The sad part is that these things are even a trend at junior level.”
Some of the most potent drugs used by youths in Harare’s poor neighbourhoods include homemade concoctions, such as sodium polyacrylate or waterlock, manufactured in backyards.
The substance, which is an absorbent for urine in diapers, is found in detergents and used in diapers.
Drug dealers are also taking advantage of Zimbabwe’s use of foreign currency as legal tender and the country’s porous borders to smuggle in drugs such as crystal meth, heroin, cocaine and cough mixtures like Broncleer to feed an ever growing market for drugs.
A gram of crystal meth costs $12 in Zimbabwe’s townships and most drug addicts have to resort to criminal activities to maintain the habits.
The Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network (ZCLDN) said increasing cases of drug trafficking and substance abuse were becoming a “heavy burden to families, communities, health and security systems as well as the national economy.”
ZCLDN said it had worked with the government to come up with a national drug master plan in response to the worsening crisis.
“The plan of action emphasises the need for supply reduction, harm reduction, demand reduction, treatment as well as rehabilitation guidelines for people who use drugs and also community reintegration,” said ZCLDN director Wilson Box.
Zimbabwe does not have official data on drug or substance abuse, but organisations such as ZCLDN say anecdotal evidence points to high illicit drug use in the country, especially after the outbreak of Covid-19.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa early this year said he had set up an inter-ministerial committee to tackle the issue of drug abuse as it had become an emergency.
He said it was “time to de-toxify and clean the minds of the young people from drugs and other social ills.”
Police have also launched an operation to hunt for drug dealers and they regularly report on arrests and cracking down on drug syndicates.