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Professor Michael Baker says that New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 has been undermined by “war on drugs” policies that have fuelled marginalisation and stigma of people who use drugs, leading to a woeful vaccination rate amongst those in addiction treatment, and transmission of the virus. 

The leading epidemiologist made the comments in a speech to the NZ Drug Foundation’s AGM today, saying the country failed to interrupt transmission in marginalised groups when the Delta variant outbreak was at an early stage in Auckland, during September this year. 

“The problem was we didn’t adapt our strategy for the fact that the virus was being transmitted in marginalised groups who are poorly served by health services and poorly connected with prevention programmes,” said Professor Baker. 

“Covid-19 thrived in stigma and secrecy. Criminalisation makes it hard to engage with people marginalised from the health system.” 

“The war on drugs doesn’t work, we’ve had 50 years of evidence saying that it doesn’t work.”  

As at the end of November only 54% of people in addiction treatment were fully vaccinated, compared with 82% of the general population.  

“You can see from the numbers we are not delivering the vaccine effectively for some groups,” he said. 

Professor Baker shared some specific actions he wants the Government to take.  

“We need a strategy for Covid-19 and people who use drugs, refined and codesigned with very active dialogue between the key parties. I think this is where the NZ Drug Foundation really shines as a respected broker. 
 
He also suggested drug support services and Needle Exchanges should be funded to provide Covid-19 services including vaccination and testing. 

“Decriminalisation of drug use as part of a harm reduction strategy has to be considered. I think there’s a huge amount of support for what is a very logical, evidence-informed shift in our policy settings.” 

Despite this recent setback in Covid-19 control in New Zealand, Professor Baker remains optimistic about this country’s overall response to Covid-19.   

He says New Zealand has taken an innovative and socially responsible approach to Covid-19 which has produced some of the best outcomes internationally.   

Professor Baker says the intersection between drug use and Covid-19 reminds him of the intersection he observed between the HIV/AIDS epidemic and injecting drug use in the late 1980s.  

During that time he assisted the government to establish the Needle and Syringe Exchange Programme to help prevent spread of HIV/AIDS through sharing injection equipment.  

“New Zealand was the first country in the world to introduce a national programme of this type.  This harm reduction approach proved highly effective and has resulted in very low HIV/AIDS prevalence in injecting drug users,” he says. 

“Today, New Zealand once again has the opportunity to take a world-leading and highly progressive approach to controlling another pandemic – Covid-19 – also linked to drug use behaviour. We could extend the harm reduction approach to cover all categories of drug use and help to minimise the Covid-19 pandemic.” 

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Watch Professor Baker's speech below.

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