By Pauline Kerr
It appears deaths from opioid overdoses in Ontario are up by more than 75 per cent since the start of COVID-19.
Although tragic, the news comes as no surprise to people who work in health care, social services and law enforcement. Cab drivers and people who work in 24-hour convenience stores should probably be added to that particular list.
Experts will undoubtedly debate how government lockdowns exacerbated the opioid crisis, and how the problems we now face could have been averted, but opioid abuse was already spiraling out of control when COVID hit. In essence, our public health people have been battling a double crisis – fighting a war on two fronts.
Not unexpectedly, the majority of those who have died of opioid overdoses were unemployed and/or homeless. The same was true prior to COVID. At a certain point, opioid abuse becomes an addiction that takes over a person’s life – family, friends, jobs and paying the rent fade in importance; the only thing that matters is the drug.
The main culprits in the opioid crisis have been fentanyl – a synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than heroin, and carfentanil – an even stronger opioid used as an elephant tranquilizer. The difference between getting high with one of these drugs, and dying of an overdose, can be as small as a few grains of salt. We are told most, if not all street drugs have fentanyl or carfentanil in them, as a relatively cheap way to add an extra kick. Manufacturers of illegal drugs are not noted for quality control.
We are well aware that measures to prevent the spread of COVID have resulted in difficulties accessing mental health and social services. Support groups have stopped meeting, and counselling is done mostly by telephone. Street outreach programs have been curtailed. People in this community with addiction issues have a difficult time getting help at the best of times, and COVID has made it nearly impossible.
Granted, the pandemic has generated fear and confusion, and, in some cases, easily accessed government pandemic relief money, adding fuel to a fire that was already blazing out of control. And it diverted attention from the opioid crisis.
What we need to remember is the pandemic did not create the opioid crisis, and getting COVID under control will not result in a reduction in overdose deaths.
There is a danger that battling the pandemic has burned through government resources to the point that the overwhelming post-COVID focus will be on getting Canada’s financial house back in order. No one has a problem with that. In fact, it will be essential to Canada’s long-term success – as long as the austerity measures that will surely come do not mean abandoning our most vulnerable citizens.
Fear has already been expressed that desperately needed changes to long-term care will be put on the back burner once again. This could easily happen with the opioid crisis as well.
We need to keep in mind every person who has died of an opioid overdose was someone’s beloved child, brother or sister, and friend. They were not born addicts. Those who have managed to survive the opioid crises because of an acquaintance with a Naloxone kit, medical intervention or sheer luck still have a chance to get help and live full and productive lives.
That is not going to happen if our society writes them off – casualties in the battle to achieve lower taxes.
Yes, the opioid crisis will be a difficult battle to fight. It will require resources, both human and financial. Community groups will have to partner with law enforcement and public health, and recognize that victory will not be marked by the sudden disappearance of fentanyl and carfentanil.
Victory will be marked by every education program that touches even one young person teetering on the brink of addiction, in expanding programs aimed not so much at curing addiction but in keeping addicts alive and reasonably healthy long enough to get them help, and in every drug dealer and manufacturer or importer of street drugs that is put behind bars.