Screening and assessment of PWUDs in Malabon City take place behind protective barriers. Photo credit: Shooting Mafia

Arniel Romero is a pastor from Malabon, a densely populated city in the Metropolitan Manila area of the Philippines. As in other major cities, illegal drugs have plagued Malabon, affecting the health and safety of residents.

In 2015, the problem hit home when Arniel’s wife was robbed by a drug user. The robbery moved him to begin to offer drug counseling through his church to help end the cycle of pain. “Looking back, God led me to my passion of helping drug users get the rehabilitation they need,” he said.

In 2016, Arniel received formal training from the Dangerous Drugs Board to become a community facilitator. He also became a volunteer and in 2020 was appointed as Community-Based Drug Rehabilitation Program Coordinator of the City of Malabon Anti-Drug Abuse Office (CMADAO).

Identifying Core Issues

In his training Arniel learned that drug users usually have emotional, mental, or psychological problems. “Yes, spirituality is important, but it is not enough,” he said. “We need interventions that improve a person’s self-worth and family relations.”

Chief of CMADAO, Vrix Sarmiento, echoed this concern. “Drug users are branded as criminals,” said Vrix. “However, most of them use drugs because of depression, anxiety, and family problems.”

Finding Bright Spots of Commitment

The drug issue in the Philippines is national, holding its grip on vulnerable populations and impacting the country’s growth and security. In response, in 2019 USAID launched the URC-implemented RenewHealth – Expanding Access to Community-Based Drug Rehabilitation Program in the Philippines.

USAID RenewHealth works to help persons who use drugs (PWUDs), people in recovery, and their families to access informal care, self-help, or community-based rehabilitation. In Malabon City, one of the supported sites of the USAID RenewHealth, the project is building on early efforts to reduce drug dependence, leveraging local commitment and strengthening the capacity of people to deliver community-based drug rehabilitation (CBDR) services with greater skill and confidence.

“We help PWUDs on their journey to recovery, enabling them to improve their family relations and live better lives,” said Arniel.

Adapting to the ‘New Normal’

Malabon City’s efforts to deliver treatment and rehabilitation services to its PWUDs, coupled with their drug-clearing operations (during these operations, local police and local government officials conduct house-to-house searches of those who sell or use for presence of drugs) have resulted in a decrease in illegal drug use in the city. Philippine National Police data showed that in 2018 the value of confiscated drugs in Malabon City was P995 million compared to P22million in 2020.

This success was threatened, however, when the COVID-19 crisis halted the services. To help the city adapt, USAID RenewHealth held webinars on mental health first aid and virtual training sessions on CBDR – aimed at assisting local government units continue providing services to PWUDs at risk of relapsing. Meanwhile, community volunteers reached clients through text messaging and online chats.

When the city resumed in-person services, USAID RenewHealth provided protective barriers, alcohol, thermal scanners, and face masks to protect people during screening and counseling.

“As we adjust to the new normal, we must continue to serve the community,” said Vrix.

Mobilizing Hope

Since 2019, USAID RenewHealth has trained 494 community facilitators in various local government units, fortifying the quality of patient-centered and compassionate CBDR services across the country. Thus far, USAID RenewHealth has partnered with 16 municipalities which formally committed to implement CBDR programs in schools, workplaces, and barangays (districts).

Meanwhile, Arniel and Vrix are dedicated to helping PWUDs live healthy and productive lives.

“We will not leave them behind,” insists Vrix.