Collective action by motivated volunteers and health professionals provides a glimmer of hope in one of the countries most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
An inspirational grassroots initiative called the “Working Group” has helped protect one the world’s most vulnerable communities from COVID-19 amid economic catastrophe and sanctions. As Iran simultaneously faced the pandemic, sanctions, and restrictions to humanitarian imports, its large community of people who use illegal drugs faced a looming disaster.
Few facts emerge from Iran outside of the barrage of rhetoric and ideology-driven accusations. However, a scientific study has identified a grassroots movement producing incredible results despite seemingly impossible odds.
Drug use in Iran
The use of drugs has long been a significant public health issue in Iran. In 2013, an estimated 1.6 million Iranians used drugs. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has attempted to decolonize its drug approach, moving away from the “war on drugs” and increasingly treating the issue of drug use as a public health issue.
In most countries the national “drug policy” leads to overcrowded prisons and non-violent people getting trapped in poverty after serving a prison sentence. Several countries, including Iran and Morocco, have instead opted for a “harm reduction” approach that aims to support the recovery of drug users and treat them as patients, not criminals.
Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that punishing drug users does not solve the problem. Instead, it creates prisons full of non-violent “criminals,” while offering no solutions to these people upon their release. People who experience problematic drug use often do so to find relief from trauma or real-life issues.
Several countries have adopted a more humane approach. Among them is Morocco, only one of a handful of countries in Africa to offer basic “harm reduction” services. Harm reduction initiatives focus on making sure drug users can find treatment, and do not become ill through dangerous practices such as the sharing of needles or taking contaminated drugs.
Iranian drug laws
The Iranian government has slowly moved from punishing drug users to trying to help them. The country moved from the type of zero-tolerance policy still seen in many countries to harm reduction initiatives in the late 1990s, followed by important reforms to Iran’s drug laws in the 2010s.
By 2014, almost 500 dedicated harm reduction centers had emerged in Iran. More than 5,000 clinics were offering clean needles for drug users and controlled substitute drugs like Methadone that help users cope with withdrawal symptoms.
These centers help Iranian drug users wean off their addiction or prevent them from catching deadly diseases through unsafe drug use. But in February 2020, US sanctions and the emergence of COVID-19 in the country made these efforts an increasingly daunting task.
In February Iran was facing disaster. Ever more punishing American sanctions were crushing the economy and blocking humanitarian imports needed to stop the local epidemic.
COVID-19 was spreading rapidly and the government faced shortages in supplies. The situation looked dire for Iran’s already vulnerable people who use drugs, as well as the people around them.
But from a desperate situation emerged a collective solution. Local NGO workers, medical experts, academics, and government representatives banded together to form a group of like-minded professionals motivated to find a solution.
The Working Group forms
This group became known simply as the “Working Group,” a collective that makes reports, shares information, and collects videos and photos to promote future activities. In the face of national scarcity, the inspired group of individuals works through social messaging apps to produce public fundraising and run educational campaigns.
When the Iranian government released 100,000 prisoners to prevent them from infection behind bars, many of the released people did not have a family or home to go to. Large groups of homeless people gathered in southern Tehran, which sparked public outrage. The Working Group became their only hope for a humane solution to the emerging crisis.
In the absence of a solution from the national government, the Working Group stepped in to provide important local solutions. Fair debate resolved disagreements within the group, and soon it was able to raise funds from the public, purchase supplies, communicate with the media, and develop and publish educational resources.
Many of the volunteers in the Working Group are former drug users themselves. Mixed with health professionals and NGO workers, the group has become a vibrant horizontal organization where each can do their part and have their voice heard.
As time progressed, between March 15 and April 13, the Working Group provided protective equipment, educational leaflets, food, water, and essentials for 2,577 people who visited their community-based drop-in centers, homeless shelters, or the Working Group’s “pop-up booths” at street markets.
The group works with the local UN Office on Drugs and Crime and state Drug Control Headquarters to develop COVID-19 podcasts and information booklets. Trained volunteers hold in-person meetings, perform COVID-19 testing, and refer cases to hospitals.
The vulnerable group of Iranian homeless drug users faced significant problems accessing clean water and sanitation after the government closed parks as part of COVID-19 measures. The Working Group mobilized to create a fundraising campaign that installed 15 large water tanks to hold 500 liters of clean water for homeless people in Tehran.
In April, many Iranians were starting to ignore COVID-19 measures. The government proposed to round up the homeless and people who use drugs to lock them in detention centers. But the Working Group pushed back through mainstream and social media campaigns based on “equity, respect and diversity” in public health strategies.
Thanks to the Working Group campaign, at the end of April the government scrapped its plan to round up the homeless altogether. Instead the government endorsed the Working Group’s recommendations on transportation, housing, medical, and harm reduction needs.
From then on, the Working Group has worked closely with the government to monitor and collaborate on its COVID-19 response.
In the midst of growing poverty, a spreading virus, and supply shortages in Iran, the Working Group has shown that non-hierarchical local collaboration can produce amazing results. The Working Group has managed to operate outside the traditional hierarchy of Iran, to the surprise of many. They do so through careful discussion, the sharing of information, and intensive use of digital media.
The Working Group is now building on its work. It is creating digital communication platforms to promote people-centered education and advocacy for residents of remote rural regions. The group has shown that in middle-income countries like Iran, collaboration and grassroots efforts can achieve tremendous results, even under dire conditions.
Small-scale local organizations like the Working Group show the importance of strong community organizations. The use of “people power” present in every community and the use of digital technology to create alternative solutions allow local citizens and motivated professionals to collaborate and address problems at a local level.