As we face dual public health emergencies, the overdose crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to find new ways to keep people who experience addiction safe, reduce harms, and support loved ones on their healing journeys.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on people who experience addiction. Overdose deaths have increased dramatically in BC since March 2020 – particularly among First Nations people. Illegal drugs have become increasingly toxic and highly unpredictable during the pandemic and the unintended consequences of some COVID-19 safety protocols have led to a tragic increase in overdose deaths.
“When the province went into lockdown during the earlier stages of the pandemic response, many of the overdose prevention and harm reduction sites and services had to either shut down, reduce their services or reduce access," explains Dr. Nel Wieman, FNHA's Deputy Chief Medical Health Officer.
Other factors contribute to the increase in overdose deaths too, most notably the entrenched stigma associated with substance use and addiction. Stigma can increase the harms of substance use.
“Here in BC, in four or five months, because of the declaration of a public health emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic, we managed to flatten the curve and it's because COVID-19 is an infectious illness," says Dr. Wieman.
“But when you talk about people who use substances, particularly opioids, [it's treated differently]. We have now been in a public health emergency [for overdose] for over four years and yet we haven't flattened that curve, so to speak. We're on our way up to even higher levels. So it speaks to the stigma that surrounds substance use versus an infectious illness. For those of us who work in the area of substance use, this is extremely saddening and frustrating."
The key to responding to the overdose crisis is a sense of compassion towards people who are experiencing addiction – an understanding that every life is valuable and that addiction is complex and challenging.
“Harm reduction is all about meeting people where they're at with kindness and with respect," says Dr. Wieman. “With COVID-19 the slogan essentially became 'we're all in this together.' When it comes to people who use substances, the thinking is 'I'm glad it's you and not me'".
“We need to change that with compassion. To say, we are all in this together with the opioid crisis. These are our family members, our friends. We need to fight that stigma and reduce the suffering and the losses that are related to the opioid crisis."
Watch a video with Dr. Nel Wieman here.
The FNHA is responding to the overdose crisis within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in a variety of ways, including an extensive, province-wide overdose prevention campaign and a new virtual health service. Read more here.
For more information about overdose prevention and harm reduction, visit www.fnha.ca/harmreduction.