Drug addiction and COVID-19: Interview to Giancarlo Rodoquino from Villa Maraini Foundation

Sabatucci Simone, Photographer- Rome, 2020

“Our objective is to establish a connection with people affected by an addiction, to start a therapeutic path. Brick by brick, to free these persons from their illness”.

-Massimo Barra, Founder of Villa Maraini Foundation

This article is inspired by a conversation with Giancarlo Rodoquino, coordinator of the “Unità di Strada”, (Street Unit, situated in Tor Bella Monaca and Roma Termini train station) of the Villa Maraini Foundation. The Villa Maraini Foundation is a National Agency of the Italian Red Cross for pathological addictions, offering different levels of services, from a “low” help to a more intensive one, as the community rehabilitation. The work carried out by the Unità di Strada is a recognized WHO humanitarian policy and it is the first form of assistance for drug abusers according to their methodology, however, some of their activities have been compromised by the COVID-19 Sanitary Emergency. The aim of the Foundation is to provide a therapy shaped on the subject, not vice versa.

Good morning Giancarlo. Could you explain the main activities of the Unità di Strada?

“We mainly do prevention for drug addicts: exchange of syringes -new or used- to prevent

illnesses like Hepatitis C and HIV; we also offer rapid tests for Hepatitis C. Our objective is to establish a connection with people affected by an addiction to start a therapeutic path. Brick by brick, to free these persons from their illness.

Our real goal is to keep the drug addict alive. From the 25th of March 1992 up to today, we have saved more than 2500 people from overdosing. The Measures of the harm reduction service provision for people who inject drugs is our humanitarian policy – born here, in Villa Maraini 20 years ago. We believe that there is always a chance to help a drug abuser as long as he is alive. When we started in the 90s, the public opinion considered our policy as an aid to substance dependence, until they started to understand our values.”


Sabatucci Simone, Photographer- Rome, 2020

What is the impact of the COVID-19 on your services and their users?

“The rapid tests for Hepatitis C are an example of inactive services due to COVID-19. Among all the people that come to us every day, 80% of them have managed to recover thanks to this service.”

  • The HIV Unit provides the services of testing and counseling; since 2015 the Foundation started a collaboration with the U.O.C, Infectious Diseases of Policlinico Tor Vergata, in order to assist the people who are HIV/HCV positive, following the concept of Continuum of Care.

“Our center has been the only one that has reached and tested for HIV/HCV more or less 700 prostitutes, and of course those whose results determined them ill, have been cured fully. Another suspended possibility is the presence of the Unità during the weekend, but we hope to restart in June; also, we have users coming from other areas of Rome, like Viterbo, and given the restrictions, they had stopped coming to us.”

Given the restrictions, what effect did they provoke on the people you help every day?

“Well, of course, we have adapted to all the measures – masks, gloves, social distancing, etc. Last week we had an increase in users, maybe 10 more, but the number of people that have been coming to us is usually quite stable. Every day we see 70 different people on average, and maybe 40% are regular users, but the other 60% are not; perhaps I can say that they are a varied group. We need to understand that these people are living their own spiral of suffering, they already live in a sort of depressive state. Also when they have a job, the temptation of the substance is high, regardless of the external situation. You know, sometimes they use methadone for a week, then they consumed the substance again: this is why I say that the users vary.”


Sabatucci Simone, Photographer- Rome, 2020

“For drug addicts, nothing has really changed; maybe the first weeks the impact was more evident. Let’s face reality: if a drug abuser has money and opportunity to consume, he will stop at nothing, and this is why we haven’t registered massive changes. Now, with the softening of the measures of containment, the flow of people is increasing, perhaps I expect there to be a peak of people that will slowly stabilize, to come back to our “normality” (if you can define it so)”

Thank you. I would now like to talk about the data on overdose during this tough period.

Credits to: Villa Maraini Foundation

“From March 20th to April 20th we registered 7 overdose cases: the last time we have seen this number was February 2018. It is a big number, but think that if we had not been there, it would have meant 7 deaths.

Such events are never under the spotlight, but they matter: drug abusers are not just “bad, ugly and dirty men”. Some of them belong to more advantaged realities, maybe they are professionals. A stereotype does not exist: the difference is made by the fact that the size and the social context of Tor Bella Monaca make them “visible”, but drug addicts are everywhere. They are hidden because it is not seen as a “social responsibility”, so they “manage” the problem on their own, and then, when it has gone too far they eventually ask for help.”

Sabatucci Simone, Photographer- Rome, 2020

“Unfortunately, in Italy, the drug addict is demonized and marginalized. When the illness – we specify: it is an illness, and being so, there is the need for professional help – only until it appears on the families’ doorsteps, do they begin to understand. When it is their children, facing the problem, the tendency is to hide the illness; then they come to us, desperate, almost at one step from the irreversible.

At this point, we have to reconstruct their past in order to help them: but in most cases, it is too late. The therapy must be done collectively, the main burden is on the drug addict, the people who surround this person, also have to participate for an effective recovery. We are a support system, a professional help; some people call us angels, we do not make miracles but we do believe that there is always a chance to recover for these people.”

Sabatucci Simone, Photographer- Rome, 2020

By Sofia Basile

Photographs by: Simone Sabatucci

Bilancio Sociale Villa Maraini


Measures of Harm Reduction: https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/97/9/18-224089/en/

Unità di Strada: http://villamaraini.it/attivita/unita-di-strada/

What is harm reduction? https://www.hri.global/what-is-harm-reduction

Continuum care: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10293297

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