The impact of Covid-19 on drugs markets in the islands of the western Indian Ocean (Part One)

The impact of Covid-19 on drugs markets in the islands of the western Indian Ocean (Part One)
Although it remains too early to assess the long-term impacts of Covid-19 across the Indian Ocean region, it is clear that drug markets are positioned to become even more entrenched in the region’s political economy in the wake of faltering formal employment opportunities. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Shahzaib Akber)

Restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19 have had a significant impact on illicit markets. However, the drugs market has been fairly resilient to the impact of the pandemic. Ongoing GI-TOC research across the Indian Ocean island states has also found that drug use may have grown as a result of the pandemic.


Part One of a four-part series — parts Two, Three and Four will examine case studies from Mauritius, Madagascar and the Seychelles.

Restrictions to limit the spread of Covid-19 — lockdowns, curfews and states of emergency — have had a significant impact on illicit markets. Now, one year into the pandemic, some of these impacts can be seen in monitoring data. The Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC), which tracks illicit maritime activity across the Indian Ocean from its base in Madagascar, reported a 50% drop in maritime-security incidents in the Indian Ocean region between February and March 2020, primarily driven by decreases in illicit flows such as the smuggling of contraband and people.

Interestingly, the regional drugs market bucked the overall trend. RMIFC incident data, supported by wider intelligence gathering and analysis, shows that drug-smuggling incidents and reported activity remained steady throughout 2020 bar seasonal fluctuations, in line with previous annual trends. RMIFC representatives reported that of the maritime smuggling and trafficking activities under their study, only drug flows continued “unaffected throughout” the pandemic.

The islands of the western Indian Ocean (namely Mauritius, the Seychelles, Mayotte, Réunion, Madagascar and the Comoros) are home to well-established illicit drugs markets. Mauritius and the Seychelles suffer from among the highest opiate consumption rates in the world, synthetic-cannabinoid use has exploded across Mauritius, Mayotte and the Comoros since 2015, and ever-greater volumes of drugs are being trafficked through Madagascar.

The economic impact of the pandemic on the islands has been severe. The loss of tourism has dealt a significant economic blow to the region, and people interviewed for GI-TOC research across the islands expressed concerns that rising unemployment would further swell the burgeoning drugs market.

Our research in the region between May and September 2020, and additional field research in the Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius during February and March 2021, explored the impacts of the pandemic not only on drug trafficking routes but also on domestic consumption markets. Preliminary findings underscore the resilience of supply chains, the sensitivity of the market to demand, and the drugs market being seen as offering viable alternative employment opportunities as the pandemic devastates livelihoods.

The impact of Covid-19 on drug supply and price

People who use drugs (PWUD) interviewed across the islands broadly agreed that there had been no major disruption in drug supply. With some exceptions, explored below, prices and purity appear to have remained stable throughout the pandemic, which supports the idea that supply has likewise remained fairly consistent. When asked about the impact of the pandemic on the drugs market in the Seychelles, one PWUD, Carol*, concluded: “Drugs are in abundance; that’s why it is cheap.”

The fairly uninterrupted supply is likely due, in part, to maritime traffic, which underpins the majority of drug flows to and between the islands, having been far less affected by Covid-19 restrictions than air and overland transport. The porosity of the island states’ borders — long, hard-to-police coastlines peppered with informal coves and landing points — diminishes the impact of imposed restrictions. Cargo shipments continued unimpeded, and according to a customs official in Madagascar who spoke to GI-TOC, inspections reduced to negligible levels during the pandemic as agents avoided non-essential inspections of goods for hygiene purposes.

Some fluctuations in drug prices were reported, many of which were shaped by pandemic trends. In Mauritius, for example, some PWUD reported an increase in cannabis prices during the lockdown period in March 2020, and PWUD in the south of the island, which has a smaller drugs market, reported decreased availability and quality. Overland travel restrictions in Madagascar, a key exporter of cannabis to Mauritius, may have restricted the flow from areas of cultivation to ports for export (primarily Toamasina, a key port near the capital, and also Nosy Be to some extent).

However, the price hike also appears to be part of a broader trend of spiralling cannabis prices in Mauritius, which increased almost fourfold between 2015 and 2020 (from €15 to €57 per gram or 800-2,675 Mauritian rupees). As cannabis has become a “luxury item” in Mauritius over time, dealers may have exploited fears of scarcity during lockdown to hike prices further, and they have remained at “lockdown levels” since.

In contrast, prices for Ecstasy were reported to have decreased (from €15 to €10 per pill) in Réunion in June 2020 following Covid-19 restrictions, with new deals emerging on bulk buys. As Ecstasy is imported to the island via post and by mules on aeroplanes — both of which experienced disruption — prices could have been expected to increase because of limited supply. However, as Ecstasy is widely used as a “party drug” — and therefore less useful amid lockdowns and social distancing restrictions — falling prices may have been driven by a drop in demand.

Nosy Be: A hotspot for drugs and tourism

When asked about the impact of the pandemic on the drugs market, Nolan*, who buys drugs in 67Ha, a suburb of Antananarivo where drug use is prevalent, answered: “I think it [supply] is always stable in Antananarivo and in the other towns of Madagascar, because it is not difficult to find drugs.” PWUD and law enforcement officials concurred that drug supply in Antananarivo, the Madagascan capital and the centre of the island’s drugs market, remained unaffected by Covid-19 restrictions.

In contrast, the pandemic significantly disrupted the sizeable drugs market in Nosy Be, an island in the northeast of the country. Nosy Be has been both a significant consumption hub and a principal point for exporting heroin to other islands, including the Seychelles, the Comoros and Mauritius. The island is also a tourism hotspot and the two economies are “interdependent”, according to Koera*, a heroin user who lives on the outskirts of Hell-Ville.

In June 2020, both PWUD and law enforcement officers in Nosy Be reported that they had not seen any significant change in the drugs market since the start of the pandemic. In March 2021, however, reports were different. Raherimaminirainy Zoly Miandrisoa, former commander of the gendarmerie unit in Djamandjary, Nosy Be, stated: “The drug market in Hell-Ville has been increasing for some time. But I observed during the lockdown that consumption [of heroin and cocaine] has decreased.” In contrast, consumption of cannabis, which is cultivated in the nearby Ambanja region, has increased during the same period.

Koera stated that he “face[s] difficulty in finding heroin. I think that during the lockdown, our dealers [did not have] enough stock in the town.” PWUD also reported decreased purity in the heroin and cocaine available.

PWUD and law enforcement officials conclude that the contraction of the market has primarily been driven by the drop in tourism as tourists make up a large part of the consumer base. Tourists are also generally able to afford higher prices than local consumers. Movement restrictions imposed to limit the spread of Covid-19 made it more difficult to transport heroin and cocaine overland from key entry points (such as the principal port of Toamasina via Antananarivo, or Antsiranana, a port city in the north), which seems to have compounded the drop in demand in Nosy Be.

As the market contracted, many dealers reportedly left Nosy Be. This includes nationals from continental Africa and Europe, who control the market in Hell-Ville. Lower-level Malagasy dealers, with “no merchandise and no customers” reportedly returned to their hometowns.

Dealers who remained in Nosy Be have struggled to replace lost income. For example, Miandrisoa reported that as “the drug market has decreased”, a significant player in the Hell-Ville drugs market has “lost all his international contacts, and he is abandoned by his team… he now has difficulties in paying his rent.”

The reported scarcity of drugs in Nosy Be suggests the area may have decreased in prominence as a point for exporting heroin from Madagascar. Given that the pandemic shows few signs of waning in Madagascar, this disruption could continue for some time.

Impacts of the pandemic on PWUD across the islands

In Mauritius, Madagascar and the Seychelles, politicians, health professionals, law enforcement officials and PWUD networks raised concerns that the rise in unemployment, due to the drop in tourism and the overall economic impact of the pandemic, will result in a rise in drug use and recruitment into dealing and trafficking networks.

Officials from the Agency for the Prevention of Drug Abuse and Rehabilitation (APDAR) in the Seychelles noted that drug use has increased since the beginning of the pandemic. APDAR also reports that demand for their methadone programme has increased in this period; this may suggest that PWUD struggling to finance heroin purchases are using the programme to top up their daily dosage. PWUD on the island report an increase in dealers, with more people turning to the drugs market for employment.

Thomas*, a PWUD in the Seychelles interviewed in March 2021, said: “It is not easy to get a job. The [interviewers] look at you from head to toes, and you can sense that they are searching for any scars from injections. After that, you never hear from them. I do some casual work sometimes, but the money is not enough. During Covid, life is tough.” PWUD in both Nosy Be and Antananarivo consistently reported a loss of livelihoods following a year of pandemic-related restrictions. In Antananarivo, PWUD reported injecting cheaper prescription drugs when they lacked the funds to purchase heroin.

In the Seychelles, the impacts of Covid-19 may be compounded by the government’s decision to phase out the government’s Unemployment Relief Scheme (URS) by the end of February 2021. Representatives from the Drug Utilisation Response Network Seychelles (DURNS) — a civil society organisation run by current and former PWUD that advocates for PWUD rights — reported that most PWUD they work with had been receiving support under the URS. DURNS representatives argued that the timing of the decision to end the unemployment scheme “is not appropriate”, predicting that “these individuals would be without funds, thus more vulnerable and may plunge into further drug use and criminal activities”.

In Mauritius, local communities may also become more reliant on support from the drugs business. Before the pandemic, several major drug dealers distributed cash to communities, or helped pay utility bills, partly in exchange for community support and resistance to police investigations. During the two lockdown periods (in March 2020 and March 2021), drug networks in a number of poorer suburbs have reportedly distributed food to local communities hit hard by the restrictions, strengthening the shadow welfare state provided by the drugs networks.

The drug market remains resilient

The coronavirus pandemic continues to affect all the western Indian Ocean islands. Although it remains too early to assess the long-term impacts of Covid-19 across the Indian Ocean region, it is clear that drugs markets are positioned to become even more entrenched in the region’s political economy in the wake of faltering formal employment opportunities. The economic impact has been severe, particularly because of the loss of employment in the tourism sector, with PWUD, often among the most marginalised in society, struggling to replace lost income.

Our initial findings demonstrate that the impact of the pandemic is not uniform. The drug market remained resilient in some locales but seems to have declined in others (such as Nosy Be), and while prices have remained largely consistent across the region, there have been notable exceptions to this trend. The findings highlight the resilience of international drug supply chains (underscoring the difficulties of disrupting them, the aim of most response frameworks), and the sensitivity of the drugs market to demand. Going forward, the pandemic will likely continue to shape the trajectory of the Indian Ocean islands’ drugs market. DM

*Not their real names.

This article appears in the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime’s monthly East and Southern Africa Risk Bulletin. The Global Initiative is a network of more than 500 experts on organised crime drawn from law enforcement, academia, conservation, technology, media, the private sector and development agencies. It publishes research and analysis on emerging criminal threats and works to develop innovative strategies to counter organised crime globally. To receive monthly Risk Bulletin updates, please sign up here.


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