COVID-19: What happens to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous?

COVID-19: What happens to Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous?PHOTO: Joyrene Kramer/Spotlight
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As the number of cases of COVID-19 crosses 200 and social distancing regulations have led to the cancelling of annual events and church services, it is unsurprising that the contact-based fellowships of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) have also been significantly affected.

Many AA and NA meetings have now been closed entirely and attendance at the remaining meetings is dwindling.

Competing fears

While many recovering addicts are scared of catching the COVID-19 virus, many are also frightened of how they’ll cope without AA and NA meetings.

Sarah* has been clean from drugs for almost two months and attends an NA or AA meeting every single day. She is following the suggestion to do 90 meetings in 90 days.

On Thursday afternoon she checked the NA website to find a meeting and decided to go to the LGBTQ meeting in Northcliff. While getting into her car that evening she went back to the website only to find that the listing for that meeting had been removed, it had been cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns. Instead, she made her way to the 19:30 meeting at the St. Francis Church in Forest Town.

When Sarah arrived, the church’s caretaker, Grant Roth, was ready and waiting to inform those attending the meeting of the facility’s new rules and precautionary measures to limit the spread of the virus.

“We’ve closed all church services but we don’t want to chase you guys out. There shouldn’t be more than 60 people at the meeting, chairs need to me a meter apart, and if anyone is sick they need to please go home,” he said.

At the beginning of the week, on Monday, when there were just 62 confirmed local cases, many meetings were already taking precautionary measures.

The Monday evening meeting held at the North Parkwood Methodist Church began with a COVID- 19 announcement.

“Meetings are important. They keep us clean. But if you are sick, please don’t come to meetings. Please don’t be offended if people refuse to hug you – we don’t prohibit hugging but it’s a good idea to limit contact,” announced the meeting’s chairperson Francois.

No holding hands

It is customary for all recovering addicts in attendance to hold hands at the end of the meeting while saying the Serenity Prayer.

“It’s messed up but we are not going to hold hands when we pray. These are strange times we live in,” he added while passing a bottle of hand sanitiser, making its way around the circle, to the person on his right.

Both NA and AA have circulated guidance on how meetings, should they remain open, should change to accommodate COVID-19 concerns including no physical contact and distancing chairs.

Cancelled meetings

Last week it was already announced that all meetings based at rehabilitation and mental health institutions had been cancelled. A staggering 28 NA meetings have been cancelled to date.

This included meetings at Akeso Randburg Crescent Clinic, at the SAHRP Foundation Clinic in Oaklands and the Tuesday evening NA meeting based at Tranquillity Home Rehabilitation Clinic Linden.

The members who run the meeting met at McDonald’s in Linden to decide whether they should find a new venue to continue holding the meeting while Tranquillity’s doors remained closed.

The team discussed the fact that, since the outbreak, many addicts have been accessing online meetings and that, perhaps, they should do the same.

“There’s nothing like a face-to-face meeting. And initially I was all for finding a new venue, but I think we should take the lead from our government and close the meeting for the meantime. I never thought I would say the words ‘take the lead from our government’,” laughed Garth, who chairs the meeting.

He said that “although it seems harsh it is probably the right move”.

However, he noted the very importance of face-to-face contact for addicts, especially those who are new in recovery. Addiction is largely a “disease of isolation” where people withdraw from society in order to continue abusing drugs and alcohol. This makes the opposite of isolation – connection – such an important component of staying clean.

Worst nightmare

“This situation is essentially forcing isolation which is every recovering addict’s worst nightmare,” admitted Garth who is over three years clean.

“But if I had just been discharged from treatment and doing a 90 in 90 I would go to meetings come hell or high water.”

Despite this, the group voted and made the decision to temporarily suspend the meeting and meet again in a month’s time to reassess the situation.

Sixty-year-old Jack, who just celebrated two years clean, has chosen to still attend his regular five NA meetings a week.

“Being connected under a common cause or objective is a fundamental property of the fellowships of NA and AA. The reasons addicts go is to solicit a knowledge and understanding of how best to change from a life as a self-indulged addict to a clear-minded thinker. As addicts we really do need the help of other recovering addicts – to see us, hear us and embrace us. These are all very primal needs that bind us in the mutual pursuit of sobriety and meetings are a starting point and foundation for this journey with the single objective – to stay clean,” he said.

Jack brings a bottle of hand sanitiser to all of the meetings he attends and offers it to anyone he comes into contact with.

“The absence or modification of this nurturing environment is a devastating notion to any recovering addict. But, unfortunately, this is precisely the diabolic affliction COVID-19 has brought about,” said Jack, who is a retired scientist.

Lower attendance

Back at the Thursday evening meeting in Forest Town there were 21 recovering addicts in attendance, instead of the usual 40 plus.

*Tendai, a 54-year-old recovering prescription pill addict who has just celebrated 60 days clean, said that although she is “terrified” of becoming ill with COVID-19, she is still attending meetings.

“For me, meetings are more important than my fears about the virus. Addiction is a 24-hour disease and meetings keep me focussed on the solution,” she said.

The Thursday meeting is Alan’s first out of a rehabilitation centre as he was discharged that morning. He agreed with Tendai.

“I have been a drug addict for years and I didn’t die. There’s no way in hell corona is going to stop me from coming to meetings,” he said.

The chairperson of the Forest Town meeting, Baruch – who has been clean for over 19 years – announced that there would be a “business meeting” after the official NA meeting to decide on this group’s future in the context of COVID-19.

“To stay clean we need to open up and share. But I’m scared. I’m imagining I’m sick. I’ve stopped looking at the news. I feel stressed and uncomfortable in my skin. I’m locked in my house and I feel abandoned and lost. This hiding from society is exactly like using drugs for me. I’m grateful to be at this meeting,” he said.

The group voted unanimously to keep the meeting running finding that its importance to recovering addicts outweighs the concerns of COVID-19.

One of the voters, 46-year-old Thabo, said that he was not too worried about becoming sick because he was taking the necessary precautions.

“Also, if I get it, I will most probably recover,” he said.

While the official mortality risk has been disputed, it has been found that death rates increase with age and older populations are at a much higher risk of dying.

A March 2020 study in the Lancet medical journal estimates the mortality rate to be 5.7%. According to the United States’ Centers for Disease Control, for those aged 85 and older the risk of dying from COVID-19 is as high as 27%, up to 11% for those aged 65 to 84, up to 3% for those aged 55 to 64 and below 1% for those aged between 20 and 54.

During the post-meeting discussion Mike – a recovering addict with almost two decades clean time – said that “this virus induced fear, but the reality is that even if we do get it we’re not going to die – with the exception of Gunther”.

Gunther, who turns 82 in May and is over 28 years clean, smiled in response.

Asked if this risk will keep him from attending meetings he said “not at all”.

“I still go to gym but I do what they ask me to do in terms of sanitising. I’m not worried, I’m not that sort of person. I am not asking for it either, but I believe what will happen will happen and it’s no use disrupting my life in the meantime.” –

* No full names are permitted to be used as it goes against NA and AA’s anonymity traditions.

List of NA meetings that have been suspended to date:

  • Saturday morning meeting at Tara Psychiatric Hospital
  • Tuesday evening meeting in Braamfontein
  • Sunday Randburg Ladies meeting
  • Thursday evening LGBTQ meeting in Northcliff
  • Monday evening Blacksheep meeting in Weltevreden Park
  • Tuesday evening meeting in Kyalami
  • Monday evening meeting in Westbury
  • Wednesday evening meeting in Northcliff
  • Wednesday evening meeting in Parkhurst
  • Saturday evening Bonfire meetings at the SHARP Foundation Clinic
  • Wednesday evening Sundowner meeting in Randburg
  • Sunday evening meeting in Boskruin, Akeso Randburg
  • Tuesday evening meeting at Tranquillity Home Rehabilitation Clinic
  • Friday evening meeting at Tranquillity Home Rehabilitation Clinic
  • Tuesday evening Daxina meeting in Lenasia
  • Sunday morning meeting in Sydenham
  • Wednesday evening meeting in Fourways
  • Sunday evening meeting in Parkhurst
  • Wednesday evening Soldiers in Recovery meeting in Lenasia
  • Thursday evening meeting in Lenasia South
  • Tuesday evening meeting in Waverly
  • Thursday evening meeting in Primrose
  • Thursday evening meeting in Midrand
  • Sunday afternoon meeting in Sunninghill
  • Friday evening meeting in Roosevelt Park
  • Wednesday evening meeting in Riverlea
  • Monday to Friday meetings at Alberton Civic Centre
  • Saturday evening meeting in Boskruin, Akeso Randburg