Over the past few months, civil society working in the field of harm reduction in Mauritius have faced various threats; false information has been spread on NGO staff, false accusations on the way the programme is run, and our funding model and process are being targeted (in the hope that we stop being vocal).

Throughout these months of constant non-stop pressure, I have seen my colleagues break down in tears once the anger and confusion subside. I myself have had many a sleepless night, and this feeling of discouragement lingering in the back of my mind. But like any activist around the world, we haven’t given up, and we won’t give up, because of the reason we work in the field of harm reduction: to provide services to vulnerable, marginalized people who often do not get access to basic health services they desperately need because of the ever present stigma and discrimination stemming from ignorance, and fear. Aside from the undeniable fact that a drug free society is a myth, we need systems in place to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs in people unable or unwilling to stop!

I have to be honest in asking whether civil society became too complacent over the last few years, since the harm reduction programmes (Methadone Substitution Therapy, Needle Exchange) were introduced after a structured advocacy from civil society and inspired individuals back in 2005. The reason why I’m asking this is 10 years or so down the line, most of the Mauritian population have no clue why these programmes were introduced, and the impact these programmes have on their safety; both with regards to health and socially. But then again, sensitisation campaigns should not have been the sole responsibility of NGOs, and should have been done with the help of the government because these programmes were implemented by both parties working together.

Now, sadly, we seem on the brink of regressing and all the progress we were able to achieve over the last 10 years – and for which Mauritius has been quoted in various international publications – has been altered without consulting all stakeholders; including people who are undergoing treatment and still using drugs. Already, the international community are alarmed no less because Mauritius is quoted as being a champion in Harm Reduction by African countries (since it was the first African country to introduce Harm reduction programmes) who have been looking to CUT to provide the necessary support in terms of know how to setup and implement Harm reduction programmes. If now the very programmes they are trying to emulate are being systematically targeted by the government, what sort of message is being sent out?

Beacon of hope?

After months and months of constantly trying to alert people on what is happening in Mauritius, garnering the support of international experts and organisations, I have to again ask what is left for us to do. No one in power seems to care, instead adopting an approach that has proven to fail: programmes not endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and are at an experimental stage at best.

Statements that the government have made that prove that public health is not at the centre of their agenda are being dismissed on the basis that they were just jokes; but no one who is sensible, has some common sense and has the interest of people at heart is laughing.

I’m inclined to ask these questions (in the hope that it will generate some answers or alert people to what is happening behind the scenes): who are the people currently advising the government? What sort of vested interest do they have in place? Why even when the scientific evidence is being presented it is being disregarded unequivocally? Does the government know there are various reports on the evaluation of Methadone in Mauritius? Follow link1 and link2 to read two of these.

I chose to work in the field of Harm reduction as an advocate because I’m passionate about human rights. For me, what Harm reduction does is putting the person right at the centre of policies, and it acts as the bridge between people who use drugs and health services that are essential to such a vulnerable group, being the last beacon of hope sometimes for problematic drug users. Sadly, as I write this, there are currently 200 people who have no treatment and have been denied access to methadone substitution therapy in Mauritius.

In the end it always comes down to the human beings we encounter or have encountered; some of the most gifted and talented individuals that because of inadequate policies, laws, ideas… become victims of a harsh, unforgiving society. Understandably harm reduction is one component in drug policies; the others being prevention, law enforcement, rehabilitation – but it is an integral part of a system that works, and it should be regarded as such, and not vilified.

More than ever we need advocates to come forward and demand a positive change from the government so that the “government rules and government decides” policy (not to mention tasteless jokes) is effectively turned into. Let’s actually look at the scientific evidence at hand and then develop sensible policies!

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