African health groups have warned that the COVID pandemic has led to a rise in drug and alcohol abuse on the continent, but a gap in data is making it hard to monitor. In South Africa, a Soweto-based nonprofit is scrambling to help youth to stay clean and sober.

Substance abuse — particularly alcohol consumption — has been on the rise in Africa for years, according to the World Health Organization.

The coronavirus pandemic that resulted in job losses and school closures has now amplified the problem.

The Ikageng children’s charity in Soweto says as many as 10 young people contact them daily suffering from addiction. Lydia Motloung, the acting program manager says that “during the lockdowns, they used to go and drink and some they were left in the houses alone, the parents are at work. And they start having the house parties and introduced to the alcohol, end up into crystal meth, which is very common around here, especially with schoolchildren.”

While Ikageng monitors the rise of addiction in the young people they’re helping, Motloung says national statistics on drug and alcohol abuse are sorely lacking.

“We normally get the statistics for COVID, you get the statistics for HIV, but we will never had any statistics for drugs and substance. I think if we can have that plan, the government can have that plan. … And then start funding the organization that are working with drugs and substance so that they fight it as they’re fighting for HIV and AIDS as they’re fighting for COVID,” she noted.

It’s not just South Africa that is lacking data on substance abuse, but the continent as a whole.

Florence Baingana is the African regional advisor on substance abuse for the World Health Organization.

“We may not count the exact numbers in each and every country. We know we have a problem. We also know that the services are inadequate, that one we know for a fact. Very often the alcohol treatment centers in the government facilities are underfunded. But I think if we were to begin by investing resources into building up the services, then we would be able to collect the data,” Baingana expressed.

She says investing in prevention would also be beneficial and less costly than treating addiction later on.

Ikageng’s caregivers like Nomali Monareng look for warning signs among the children they support.

She knows them first-hand, having struggled with addiction herself.

“Sometimes we need to start with parents. Most of children don’t, you don’t know how to talk about their feelings, don’t know how to express. Children need to be, to be taking care in all of their life, in all areas, like talking, having the conversation, even if it’s deep, even if it’s uncomfortable, you need to give the child a chance to talk,” she pointed out.

For those looking to get clean, the organization refers them to support groups that help people transition in and out of rehab.

They’re trying to offer skills training as well, so recoverees can find jobs and a purpose.

Vusi Nzimande is a project manager for the support program called Still We Rise.

“Where you find people idling, they don’t do nothing with their lives. That’s one of those things that causes us because of the mind is playing around. You started thinking too much. You don’t have a job; you don’t have anything to do. And then suddenly you see yourself going back to your old ways,” Nzimande said.

For the young people he’s helped, getting clean has been the first step. But experts say they’ll need opportunities and jobs to give them hope and keep them out of trouble in the long run.

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