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Smoking the hookah (okka) pipe socially increases the risk of COVID-19

Author: Zainab Kadar

SA is on COVID-19 lockdown and people have been encouraged to practice basic protective measures - sneezing into one’s elbow, cleaning hands often and disinfecting surfaces. But a potential carrier of the virus has been overlooked – hookah pipe smoking.

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(Published - 30 March 2020)

The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has hit the world by storm, with the World Health Organisation declaring it a global pandemic. South Africa is on lockdown and people have been encouraged to practice basic protective measures such as sneezing into one’s elbow, cleaning hands often and disinfecting surfaces. Whilst these are all vital considerations, a significant potential carrier of the virus has been overlooked – hookah pipe smoking. 

The hookah pipe is a device used to smoke legal and illegal substances. The hookah pipe is usually smoked in a group for approximately 45-60 minutes. It is passed from person to person every few seconds or minutes – depending on how long each person smokes and the number of people. Sometimes, people use a filter which they place in the hookah pipe hose for hygienic reasons, but it is unlikely that each smoker has their own filter. 

Undoubtedly, this raises alarm bells, especially amidst the COVID-19 crisis. It is known that the virus is spread through respiratory droplets entering the nose, mouth and eyes. It is also spread by touching infected surfaces, hence the necessity to sanitise and wash hands regularly.

Smoking the hookah pipe with a group of people and sharing a mouthpiece is not the only danger. A smoking session requires the group to sit in close proximity to each other – thereby disregarding social distancing.

During the lockdown, temptation to smoke the hookah pipe, drink alcohol and/or smoke cannabis may arise. In some cases, alcohol and cannabis are used within the hookah. Either way, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is higher. Users are warned to be careful, because people infected with COVID-19 can present as asymptomatic for a while, so what may seem like an innocent smoking session can be deadly.

Things to do instead of smoking the hookah pipe:

  • Try to spend time with your loved ones without the hookah pipe. 
  • Discover yourself and find alternative ways to cope with stress.
  • While you are bored at home, consider how lucky you are to be at home and not in hospital. Reflect on five things that you are grateful for. This reflection can be a family activity.
  • The hookah pipe is often a gateway to other substances. Let this time be a gateway to a better you. 

Zainab Kader is a Registered Counsellor and PhD Candidate at the University of the Western Cape’s Child and Family Studies Unit. 

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