The COVID-19 pandemic has continued to have negative impacts on different facets of the lives of people in countries around the world, including Nigeria.
One of such impacts is the increase in the number of people indulging in alcohol, especially the locally-made ogogoro, and drug abuse due to mental and emotional stress.
Many Nigerians, according to PUNCH HealthWise findings, have also turned to seeking solace in alcohol because of the pandemic.
Experts are, however, warning that mental disorders may be another major health challenge the country will have to contend with after the viral infection is over, if something is not done to halt the rate at which Nigerians are abusing alcohol, especially the local version called ogogoro. They also cautioned against the rising abuse of drugs, as well as food spices like ginger, garlic, pepper and onion, etc.
According to psychiatrists, there has been a spike in mental health disorders in the country in the last couple of months, as those engaged in high alcohol intake, with the erroneous belief that it will protect them against the viral infection, are coming down with mental health problems.
Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba, recording increase in substance abuse disorders
Staff of the Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Lagos including the Medical Director of the hospital, Dr. Oluwayemi Ogun, told PUNCH HealthWise, that they have been seeing more patients with substance abuse disorders since the outbreak of COVID-19.
They attributed the increase to high consumption of alcohol, especially ogogoro, saying many are abusing it with the false claim that it protects them against COVID-19.
Some of the people abusing alcohol, who spoke with our correspondent, however, insisted that they will continue with their action until a vaccine or cure is found for the viral infection.
These ogogoro consumers alleged that different brands of ogogoro were released into the Nigerian market a month after the country recorded her index case.
This, they claim, is a sign that ogogoro could provide some kind of protection against COVID-19.
A commercial bus driver plying Oshodi- Mile 2 route in Lagos, who identified himself as Baba Ahmed, disclosed that he had been taking alcohol since the outbreak to protect himself against the virus because he comes in contact with a lot of people every day. Ahmed said:
“You know the nature of my work and I carry different people every day. They told us that Lagos has the highest case in the country, so I have to do something to protect myself.
“My job is risky in this period because I don’t know the passenger that has the condition. So, what my conductor and I usually do is to drink early in the morning before we start work and ensure that our body is too hot for the virus to enter. We are not the only ones drinking.
“We heard that COVID-19 cannot survive in any hot environment. So, I think is better we protect ourselves before it happens.”
Ogogoro is cheaper than hand sanitiser
For Chima Ndubuisi, it is less expensive to fight COVID-19 by drinking ogogoro than buying hand sanitisers. The second-hand cloth dealer told our correspondent that with N30 or N40, he gets a sachet of the locally prepared alcohol which he drinks and also uses to sanitize his hands. Ndubuisi explained,
“Since the outbreak, especially in April and May, many people in Lagos were drinking alcohol to prevent COVID-19. For me, it is cheaper to drink ogogoro with N40 than to go buy hand sanitizer of N300.
“We have different types of ogogoro in the market in various sachets that are very cheap. Some are sold at the rate of N30 per sachet, others N40 or N50 and, sometimes, you can get three for N100. Some are also sold in small bottles for N50. What I do is that, when I buy that of N50, I will drink some and use the remaining one to sanitise my hands.
“We are told that alcohol kills germs and COVID-19 and that we should use an alcohol-based sanitiser. So, I feel that ogogoro is working because it is a strong drink. My friends are also taking it. We normally take it early in the morning before opening our wares to customers.”
Unaware of the risk of mental illness
Asked if he was aware of the health implication of harmful use of alcohol, Ndubuisi simply said, “I am not the only one drinking it.
“Go to the market, you will see different types of ogogoro that came out because of COVID-19 and people are buying and drinking them to help themselves.
“Whether it is causing a mental problem, I don’t know. All I know is that too much of it will make one vomit or sleep.”
A trader at Oshodi market who sells beverages and alcoholic drinks confirmed Ndubuisi’s claim, affirming that there have been different brands of ogogoro in the market since the COVID-19 outbreak, adding that they are accessible to people because of the price.
Many ogogoro came out during COVID-19 outbreak
The trader, who preferred anonymity, said,
“Yes, we have many of them that came out around March and April when the panic over COVID-19 was very high.
“Most of them are produced in Ogun State and with N40 or N50, anybody can get a sachet or a bottle of the ogogoro like Charger, Kai Kai, Ijaw, Sapele Wota and many others.”
Other consumers who spoke with PUNCH said they did not see anything wrong in drinking ogogoro to prevent COVID-19, describing it as native medicine.
The World Health Organisation warns that alcohol consumption cannot protect against COVID-19, expressing concern that fear and misinformation have generated a dangerous myth that consuming high-strength alcohol can kill the virus.
Already, before the outbreak of the pandemic, reports showed that about 20 to 30 per cent of Nigeria’s population suffered from mental disorders, which many mental health experts believed was too high. And now alcohol abuse is said to have compounded the problem, with less than 250 trained psychiatrists in the country.
Substance use disorders increased during first six months
Dr. Ogun told PUNCH in an exclusive interview that psychiatrists are worried about the ongoing alcohol abuse, projecting that the country will witness an increase in mental illness post-COVID-19. She explained,
“We noticed that substance use disorders are on the increase. When we did our statistics from January to June this year and compared it to that of last year, when you look at the figures, this year is about 57.1 per cent while that of last year was around 39. 2 per cent.
“This shows that patients with substance use disorders increased during the first six months of this year.
“That is one issue out of the many diagnoses of mental disorders. We have an increase in that area and we have figures to back it up.
“Substance abuse is one aspect of mental health. The reason is that people who take drugs believe that when they take ogogoro, it will kill COVID-19.
“So, those who are using drugs before are harmed because there are so many people encouraging them that when they drink ogogoro, it will burn COVID-19 in the throat. Have you not heard of that?”
The medical director noted that those with mental illness who could not access their drugs during the lockdown were experiencing resurgence of their problem.
They relapsed and we are seeing them in the clinic. There is a lot of stress and we are seeing a lot of drug loss related psychiatric disorders too.
Psychiatrists getting ready for post COVID-19
“Psychiatrists are getting ready for increase in mental illness in Nigeria post-COVID-19. Currently, we are seeing 30 to 40 per cent of Nigerians with mental health disorders”, she said. Dr. Ogun reiterated,
“We have increase in substance abuse disorders because of abuse of alcohol. Ogogoro is everywhere in different sachets and bottles and they don’t drink it alone.
“They consume the ogogoro in groups, sermonizing one another that it will kill COVID-19; asking themselves why they should wear facemask and adopt recommended safety measures, erroneously believing that ogogoro will offer them some kind of protection against COVID-19. These are issues.
“If the pandemic continues, we are going to have absolute increase in substance use disorders. Already, I told you that we are having more of such people in our hospital that came down with mental health issues.
“Alcohol does not kill COVID-19 when you consume it. Alcohol causes havoc in the body.”
Abuse has assumed a worrisome dimension
Corroborating the views of his boss, a psychiatrist at the hospital, who preferred anonymity, told PUNCH that the increase in the number of patients abusing substances due to COVID-19 had assumed a worrisome dimension. He said:
“We are having a good number of inflow of patients into the hospital at this present time and we have a good number of admission too.
“We are relating it to stress and abuse of substances like alcohol and over the counter medicines caused by COVID-19, as a lot of the patients are with first episode.
“Due to the fear of contracting the infection and the social media circulating a whole lot of measures that can be used as palliative or preventive, people are now rushing into things that will cause more harm to their body system like the use of ogogoro and over the counter drugs.
“They abuse these things not knowing that at the end of the day, they will develop dependence on those substances and become addicted.”
The psychiatrist added,
“So, from the number of patients we are seeing in our hospital, it is obvious that excessive alcohol intake and drug abuse in the last couple of months has increased mental disorders in the country. We are even going to have more cases post COVID-19. This is a very big concern to psychiatrists.”
Those engaged in the abuse find it difficult to stop
Another psychiatrist and lecturer, Department of Psychiatry, College of Medicine. University of Lagos, Dr. Peter Ogunnubi, who confirmed the increase in substance abuse disorders, told our correspondent that there were many mental health implications of COVID-19 pandemic.
Giving the implications of substance abuse on mental health, Dr. Ogunnubi, noted,
“We are looking at COVID-19 as a major public health issue, not knowing that it has associated mental health problems and one of them is increase in substance abuse and increase in addictive behaviour.
“Though data is still being collated, the truth is that, for two or three reasons, we have increase in addictive use of substance, either because of the erroneous beliefs or myths that surround the fact that when you take alcohol with cannabis mixed with concoctions, it will take COVID-19 off your body.
“Don’t forget that alcohol addictive use starts from experimental use, and later to purposeful use. After purposeful use, one becomes a compulsory user and after becoming compulsory user, one now becomes an addictive user.
“These people that are purposely using it, perhaps, to prevent COVID-19 and so on, the alcohol will not know that that is the reason.
“So, they move to the next level, which is compulsory usage and after a while, even when COVID-19 is over and they discover that what they were doing was wrong, they cannot even stop again because they have become compulsory and addictive users.”
He went on,
“You don’t just start alcohol and drug and stop like that. As they get used to it, once they don’t take it, they will experience withdrawal symptom.
“The withdrawal symptom is what makes people to continue to take alcohol and drugs. That is why we tell people that using alcohol, cannabis and all kinds of psychotropic substances to cure COVID-19 or to prevent COVID-19 will rewire the brain.
“All these will worsen mental illness because addiction itself is another form of mental illness.
“From my own experience, I have seen a great upsurge in the level of mental illness this year, especially anxiety, depression and what we call adjustment disorder.”
Alcohol taken without regulation in Nigeria
A Consultant Pharmacist, Dr. Lolu Ojo, also said,
“Alcohol is taken everywhere and anywhere without any regulation, unlike illicit drugs. Alcohol is tolerated and that is why people abuse it a lot.
“The normal pattern of behaviour is already altered by alcohol. Their brains have been altered.
“When you go to places that these people gather, you will see all kinds of alcohol in different shapes and sizes. The way they consume these drinks, especially those in sachets, is frightening.”
NAFDAC to withdraw packaged alcohol in sachets
The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control says it has fixed a time frame for the withdrawal of packaged alcohol in sachets from the Nigerian market.
NAFDAC Director-General, Professor Mojisola Adeyeye, disclosed this during a virtual webinar on Tuesday, noting that the decision was necessary to rid the nation of drug and alcohol abuse in society. She said:
“There is a timeline now for sachet alcohol to be taken off the market. I have also warned the distilleries to start educating the public on the danger of alcohol before consumption.”
The experts called for increased awareness on the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse and also enlighten the populace that consumption of alcohol cannot protect against COVID-19.
They also urged the national assembly to pass the Mental Health Bill, while appealing to the Federal Government to train more mental health experts.