Cape Times

The agony of ‘turkeying’ that is felt by street-based drug users


“They don’t understand what it’s like to turkey, to experience this. They never will, but they laugh and mock me

THE coronaviru­s disease 2019 (Covid19) is currently a global pandemic.

To reduce the risk of transmitti­ng the virus, countries all around the world are implementi­ng various restrictio­ns on public movement and contact.

In South Africa, there is currently a lockdown period, which was initiated on March 16 and is currently scheduled to be in place until the end of the month.

Under this lockdown, individual­s may not leave their place of residence except for clearly defined reasons, outlined by the South African Government.

These restrictio­ns have a substantia­l impact on street-based people, especially those who use drugs and are likely to experience additional complicati­ons when their movements are restricted.

Living on the street and not being able to move around is problemati­c, particular­ly if there is a need to purchase drugs on a daily basis.

Unfortunat­ely, those who are heroin (nyaope, unga, whoonga) dependent face the challenge of needing daily doses of the drug.

Street-based people have to risk being stopped and detained by the police during their journey to acquire drugs, often resulting in dire consequenc­es. There have also been reports of sellers increasing the prices of their products, as well as some users pooling their money, buying greater quantities and then reselling among their communitie­s at an inflated cost.

These challenges to the street-based drug user are compounded by the fact that the source of money they usually make use of, is unavailabl­e during the lockdown.

With most middle-class people at home isolating, there is very little opportunit­y to make money through “scurreling” or by selling various items to people moving through the streets.

In Cape Town, street-based people, who currently have no fixed place of residence, are being relocated to various secure sites.

Theoretica­lly, this relocation is voluntary, and consent is given by the individual­s being moved, however, there have been numerous reports that contradict this.

There have been many individual­s who expressed interest in being taken to a secure site, based on informatio­n and anecdotal reports on the conditions and facilities offered at the secure sites.

Civil society organisati­ons have facilitate­d the transfer of many street-based people to the secure sites, ensuring that they are able to take their essential belongings to the site and that they arrive safely. On-site, individual­s are allocated to a designated tent, where they will reside for an undetermin­ed period of time.

At the Strandfont­ein site, individual­s sleep close to one another and, in addition to the potential exposure to Covid-19, those experienci­ng severe opioid withdrawal­s are afforded little to no privacy, unless they brought a small camping tent with them.

On my initial visit to the site, I focused on identifyin­g and recording the details of those experienci­ng withdrawal from opioids.

My approach was to engage compassion­ately with those in withdrawal, to listen empathetic­ally, and acknowledg­e the pain and distress they were experienci­ng.

Over the four hours I spent on site, I engaged with more than 25 people who were going through painful withdrawal­s.

The severity of withdrawal symptoms ranged from mild to severe.

Witnessing friends and clients, who I have had long-standing relationsh­ips with, going through the excruciati­ng experience of opioid withdrawal, broke my heart.

No one should have to through this.

And for those who don’t have the lived-experience of going through opioid withdrawal, the overwhelmi­ng pain and distress can make living seem unbearable.

What this looked like, was human-beings vomiting, crying, and begging for assistance of any kind.

Anything to stop the “turkeying” (colloquial term for “withdrawin­g”) and alleviate the indescriba­ble pain, allowing for them to fall asleep, even if for a minute.

To look into a human being’s eyes, who is going through this, is a sobering experience – that reaches the core of your soul and tugs on any sense of empathy one may have.

While sitting with a friend, next to his tent, he cried: “Why me?” As the tears streamed down his face, sticking to his clammy skin, he said to me: “They don’t understand what it’s like to turkey, to experience this. They never will, but they laugh and mock me”. suffer

I never asked my friend who “they” were, but I could only assume it was others residing under the same tent.

I sat with my friend for a while longer, mostly in silence, as he tried to close his eyes and dissociate from the pain.

While devastatin­g, I left with some optimism – knowing that there are organisati­ons and individual­s who care, and who were working relentless­ly to ensure others, like my suffering friend, receive support and relief.

As I write this, I can say that many of my friends, and others I met during my visit – who were suffering – have received support.

Many of those in mild to moderate withdrawal have been given an adequate supply of symptomati­c medication to relieve some debilitati­ng symptoms, while others have been initiated on an opioid substituti­on therapy programme, where they are currently receiving methadone or buprenorph­ine-naloxone.

Currently, there is a co-ordinated effort from multiple stakeholde­rs to try and upscale this support.

In addition, multiple entities have pledged financial assistance to ensure that the support is sustained into the future.

Stowe is the national advocacy and region co-ordinator for the South African Network of People Who Use Drugs

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