Since the spread of COVID-19 began in Canada, there has been a huge surge in opioid-related overdoses across the country. This spike in overdoses is directly connected to the scaling back of resources for those struggling with opioid addiction. This is just another example of how COVID-19 has taken all the problems of capitalist society and exacerbated them, affecting the most downtrodden layers the hardest.
British Columbia, which had previously been hit the hardest by the opioid crisis, recorded the highest ever number of overdose deaths in May 2020. Over 500 people have now died of fatal overdoses in the province this year. In total, the death toll of opioid-related overdoses has now exceeded that of coronavirus. Tragically, similar trends have been appearing throughout the rest of the country as well. In Ontario, there was a 25% increase in overdose deaths from March to May 2020 compared to the same period of time last year. In April, Toronto Paramedic Services responded to 343 suspected drug overdose calls, which included 25 deaths. Alberta reported a 114% increase in opioid-related calls to EMS from March to May 2020, while Saskatoon also experienced a record week of overdose calls in April. Overdose interventions have also increased at supervised consumption sites (previously referred to as supervised injection sites). Staff at the Calgary Drop-In Centre reported reversing more than 40 overdoses in both March and April this year, compared to 11 in February.
This increase in fatal overdoses comes as resources have been cut as a result of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Supervised consumption sites continue to run, but physical distancing guidelines limit the number of people who are able to access these services. One site in Toronto which previously averaged over 100 visits a day now reports receiving fewer than half that number. This decline in capacity has proven especially harmful in Ontario due to the Ford government’s announcement last year of a cap of 21 supervised consumption sites in the province, as part of a general austerity onslaught on the working class. Montreal has also been forced to temporarily shut down three out of four of their sites, and has now seen a large increase in overdose interventions since May. In B.C., firefighters were urged not to respond to any non-life threatening medical calls, including overdose calls, despite the spike in overdose deaths. People living in single-room occupancy buildings in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside have also been discouraged from having any visitors, though health experts have warned that this policy could be dangerous given that unaccompanied drug usage is more likely to lead to fatal overdoses. Shutdowns and hospital overcrowding due to coronavirus are also limiting access to essential medications that people who are addicted to opioids need, leaving them to overdose alone at home or in the streets.
The opioid crisis was already a major public health concern in Canada, but unfortunately it comes as no surprise that the conditions of the pandemic have only worsened this crisis. The healthcare system, incredibly underprepared for the pandemic, had nothing prepared for people struggling with addiction. In addition, COVID-19 has led to social isolation, job losses, and major economic and health concerns, all leading to increased stress and situations where people are far more likely to turn to substances in order to cope. Opioid drug addiction is already far more common among visible minorities as well as low-income, unemployed, or homeless people, whose situation has become much worse as a consequence of the pandemic.
Some people have pointed to CERB as a factor in the dramatic increase in opioid overdose deaths. It cannot be denied that in a context of isolation, stress and economic uncertainty, some addicts with no revenue would use this emergency money to buy drugs. But what can be done about this? Is the solution to cut the money, and let these people starve instead? This would be obscene. Under the conditions of capitalism, CERB is simply a band-aid on an open wound. However, the solution is not to remove CERB, but to provide proper housing and services. Adequate access to harm reduction and treatment sites along with proper sanitary measures, wider distribution of life-saving medications like buprenorphine and naloxone, and other programs for drug users is now increasingly necessary. The decriminalization of drug possession is also crucial in order to prevent criminal sanctions for drug users and promote access to treatment services instead.
As we have seen throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 has taken all the weak points of capitalist society and exacerbated them: from the mistreatment of temporary foreign workers and meat-packing workers, to the crisis of long-term care and senior homes, to homelessness and the general favouring of profits over human lives. As usual, these issues disproportionately affect the most oppressed and exploited layers of society. So long as capitalism exists, issues like these will continue to prevail and hit the most vulnerable the hardest. While fighting in the here and now to protect access to services necessary for people struggling with addiction—as well as all services essential to live a good-quality, safe life—the labour movement must fight for a socialist society where people don’t need to seek refuge in drugs from misery, poverty and oppression.