Street people in focus as Czech cities and NGOs try to prevent coronavirus spreading

Photo: Klára Stejskalová

As the Czech Republic continues its struggle to contain the growing number of coronavirus infections, some have pointed to the risks associated with the thousands of drug users and homeless people living on the streets. These may not only be at high risk from the virus, but, if not isolated, could help spread COVID-19 virus in their towns and cities.

Photo: Klára Stejskalová
It is not just a lifetime of smoking that can make individuals particularly susceptible to a COVID-19 infection. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, the smoking of heroin or crack cocaine can aggravate chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and asthma. At the same time, intravenous drug use can lead to HIV or Hepatitis, illnesses which weaken the person’s immune system.

That hard drug users are often homeless and therefore exposed both to the elements as well as public spaces further compounds the issue, not least because they can act as uncontrolled spreaders themselves.

To prevent the problem from getting out of hand, the Ministry of Labour and Social affairs has issued guidelines on how to work with these groups during the epidemic. These include contactless temperature checks and making lodging houses available at all times.

Prague City Hall has gone further, moving the homeless into hotels, hostels and even considering the conversion of a brothel into a lodging house in order to get the endangered groups off the streets and thus minimize the risk of contagion.

In Brno, city authorities are working with organisations like drug addiction support NGO Podané Ruce (Extended Hands) in order to find the alternative housing.

Jindřich Vobořil,  photo: Marián Vojtek / Czech Radio
The NGO’s director Jindřich Vobořil, a former nurse, says he and his team are currently picking out places across Brno where emergency containers can be placed.

“We are talking about those types of containers where you can go to the toilet, have a shower and cook so that homeless people can live there. Our team is also going around, taking their temperature and getting them off the street.

“Furthermore, we are organising quick slip-in options, such as tents, so we are working on the establishment of a sort of tent town.”

Many have volunteered to help in the effort, so Mr Vobořil is now selecting the best candidates and establishing rapid staff training.

It is necessary to create a strong reserve of trained personnel, he says, because, just like in a war, the front line may soon be in need of replacements.

“We are trying to build an army of volunteers, because in a week the situation might be that a lot of our people are in quarantine and a lot of the services begin collapsing. Once they start collapsing the health care system could be overwhelmed.”

The state has only recently begun providing basic medical equipment to those working in the social sector and organisations such as Podané ruce were therefore at first forced to join up with Brno volunteers in sewing face masks for themselves and those on the street.

Photo: ČTK/Michal Krumphanzl
However, right now he says the main issue is a serious lack of testing kits. Without being able to know who is infected, there is an ever-present danger that social services staff could get the virus, or infect the homeless themselves.

“We are having a big debate about whether we should put our people at risk, or put the whole city at risk. What we are therefore trying to do is to gather as much protective material, whether they are suits, gloves, facemasks and other equipment.

“Those who volunteer also have to follow strict rules to prevent possible spreading [of the virus].”

The only other option, Mr Vobořil says, would be not to do anything.