Canada is winning the fight against COVID-19. The number of new infections is falling. So are hospitalizations and deaths. Millions of Canadians are already partly vaccinated and more and more are getting their second shot. Though the spread of the new Delta variant shows that the virus is insidious and still dangerous, the end of this ordeal is clearly in sight.
The same cannot be said for Canada’s second deadly health crisis. The epidemic of drug overdoses has been grinding on for years, claiming more than 20,000 lives in all, not far short of the 25,000 taken by the coronavirus. Far from waning, it has been getting worse during the pandemic.
The measures authorities have rightly taken against COVID-19 often put drug users at greater risk. Injunctions to stay at home and avoid social contact mean more people are using alone, which means that no one is there to help if users suffer an overdose. The services they rely on are limited or harder to reach. The drugs they take have grown more dangerous as border closings disrupt the usual supply lines.
The results are visible in the numbers, and they are stunning. British Columbia just reported that overdose deaths exceeded 100 for the 14th consecutive month. At least 176 people died in April, up 43 per cent from last April. That averages out to about six deaths a day. Among the recent victims were a boy of 14 and a girl of 12.
Alberta saw deaths almost double in 2020. In its capital, Edmonton, three men were found dead in a public park of apparent overdoses last month. Emergency services said they responded to 248 opioid-related calls, twice the figure for last May.
Manitoba’s death toll rose 87 per cent in 2020 to 372. The drugs being sold on the streets of Winnipeg often contain benzodiazepines, sedatives that make it harder to revive overdose victims.
In Ontario, a recent report found that, from the start of the pandemic in March, 2020, to the end of last year, 2,050 people died of overdoses, up 75 per cent from the same period in 2019. The biggest increase came among those in the prime of life, aged 25 to 44. Even in Quebec, which has been less devastated than other provinces, deaths rose by nearly a third last year to 547.
Though this tide of death has hardly gone unnoticed, it has been overshadowed by the massive struggle with COVID-19. Andrea Sereda, a doctor in London, Ont., calls it the visible/invisible crisis. It is happening all around us, in the streets, parks and apartment buildings of our communities, yet its victims often seem off our radar or even beneath our notice.
It is as if they are fish in a fishbowl, living in a whole other world. We tap on the glass, says Dr. Sereda, then we move on. Worse, we blame them for their own plight. If they overdose, it is their own fault: They never should have tried drugs in the first place. Or they should simply summon up the will to quit.
Fortunately, attitudes are starting to change. We are gaining a better understanding of the power of addiction. We are learning more about what drugs and methods are best for helping drug users cope with their suffering.
Most important, we are finding ways to keep them alive. Safe-consumption sites have popped up across the country for users who wish to take their drugs in a sanitary, supervised setting. Many places have low-barrier clinics that give them quick access to medicines that control their cravings. Outreach workers are stationed in the streets of many cities, checking in on users and carrying the overdose-reversing drug naloxone in case they see an overdose.
Some jurisdictions are experimenting with safe supply: giving certain users regulated drugs so that they don’t have to rely on the poisoned street version. Vancouver is even preparing for an experiment with decriminalization. People would not be charged for simple possession of small quantities of street drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
Almost anything that could make a difference is worth trying, even if we have to stray outside our comfort zone. The great national battle against the coronavirus shows what resources we can muster in the face of a deadly threat to public health. At long last, that effort is bearing fruit. It’s time to put some of the same determination and creativity into Canada’s “other epidemic.”
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