Overdoses a public health crisis

If there is one lesson that has been learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that doctors and public health officers must make painfully difficult decisions to prioritize health emergencies.

In other words, some diseases - and the patients affected by them - take precedence over others.

As soon as COVID-19 was declared a pandemic a year ago, the overdose crisis took a backseat.

B.C.’s efforts to contain a highly contagious virus have still cost the lives of 1,376 of our fellow British Columbians (as of Thursday), according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. To put that number into context, that’s double the population of McBride.

Meanwhile, 1,726 people died of overdoses in B.C. in 2020 or the population of Fort St. James. Another 165 people died of overdoses in B.C. this past January. 

Seven of those people died in Prince George. To put that number into context, that’s more than the number of people who died of overdoses during January in Kelowna, Kamloops and Nanaimo – combined.

Overdose deaths are as traumatic for family, friends and health care professionals as COVID-19 deaths. Tragically, not only are these two health emergencies seen differently but so are the deaths.

While those who die of COVID-19 are seen as victims who died mostly unpreventable deaths, it seems the people who die of overdoses are mostly dismissed as addicts or junkies who deserve most or all of the blame for their own demise.

As Ted Clarke’s recent story on the untimely death of former Prince George Spruce Kings captain Chad Staley showed, the overdose crisis is killing people from all backgrounds, all walks of life, regardless of whether they had prior issues with substance abuse or not.

Of course, it made sense to prioritize containing the spread of the new coronavirus when it first emerged because it had the potential to overwhelm our hospitals and health care providers on its way to killing hundreds of thousands of British Columbians. 

But it can’t be forgotten that the medical community also sees addiction as a disease, just like COVID-19. Once everyone willing to take a needle or two is vaccinated later this year, it will be time to address the overdose crisis with the same enthusiasm to wipe out this horrible affliction as COVID-19 received.

Sadly, addiction has a stigma attached to it, making it less of a disease and far more a personal weakness. Yet research shows addiction is actually a common human trait, shared by a majority of people. 

That is certainly not news to recovered drug and alcohol addicts. In their world, they’ve simply replaced self-destructive addictions with more socially acceptable addictions, like exercise or other time-consuming hobbies.

For those who think they don’t have an addiction or an addictive personality, it’s easy to run a thought , so long as the answers are honest. Could you close your Facebook account today and never go on social media ever again? Could you put your cell phone away forever? Could you never have another sip of alcohol or coffee for as long as you live? How about sweets? How about pornography?

None of those habits are essential to living a full life but all of them have the ability to evolve from guilty pleasure to life-altering obsession. Addiction lives at each of our doorsteps and there is little that separates us from those we dismissively label as addicts.

As COVID-19 moves into the rearview mirror over the coming months as a deadly threat looming over all of us, it’s time to refocus our energies on the overdose crisis.

We need to see Dr. Bonnie Henry and health minister Adrian Dix providing similar regular updates on the situation and what’s being done to reduce the number of deaths.

We need to see the same broad community support towards efforts to stem the overdose crisis as we did for COVID-19.

Before the pandemic started, with overdose rates skyrocketing since 2016, Dr. Henry recommended the B.C. government pursue decriminalization of illicit narcotics to take away the law enforcement component (except for trafficking, of course) and focus on the individual sufferers from a health-care perspective.

The Horgan government put its trust in the science and Dr. Henry’s guidance during COVID-19. It needs to do the same with the overdose crisis.