Reflections on International Overdose Awareness Day In The Middle of a Pandemic
Contributing Writer: Tara Fitzgerald
International Overdose Awareness Day, August 31, compels us to pay attention to the lives lost in this unabating public health emergency. This year, as we approach IOAD, I have a lot on my mind. As someone who works in public health and has been immersed in the pandemic response, I see how quickly government can mobilize to save lives and protect our communities, and how swift, decisive policies can change the trajectory of what we experience as individuals and communities. I’ve worked in harm reduction in various roles for the last fifteen years. Today, I am sitting with heaviness, knowing that 7,000 lives have been lost to what is now known as the toxic drug poisoning crisis in British Columbia, and knowing that 5 more lives will be lost today, and each day. Yet I am hopeful knowing in spring 2020 we were able to significantly blunt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic by rallying together, following public health guidelines, and taking care of one another. Looking further back, the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS crisis was forever altered by scientific developments and community activism, much of it occurring in BC. My hope is that we will do the same by turning our collective attention to the substance use crisis still unfolding around us.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably shifted our reality and the public’s attention. The toxic drug poisoning crisis still matters and demands that same attention. The lives lost matter, the husbands, sons, fathers, uncles, friends, sisters, aunts, wives, daughters matter - as do the children, families and communities left grieving this relentless public health emergency. Our actions, our words, and our attention can make a difference every day. Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us what this kind of collective attention can do.
In 2016, BC, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendal first declared the Overdose Crisis as a provincial public health emergency. Five years later, the crisis has continued with the COVID-19 pandemic further destabilizing the drug supply and bringing the risk of drug poisoning to an all time high. Since 2016, this crisis has claimed over 7,000 lives in BC. While the drug supply was already rife with contaminated drugs, the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant border closures made things more volatile because trade networks were interrupted and poisonous toxins increased. Adding to this, the economic upturning that resulted in lost or disrupted jobs, uncertain social conditions that escalated rates of mental health issues, increased substance use disrupted our daily routines and changed our lives in immeasurable ways. In 2020, overdose events and toxic drug fatalities increased and surpassed all time highs, exceeding the total number of deaths from motor vehicle accidents, homicide and suicide. In 2020, an estimated 70,000 potential years of life were lost due to overdose.
There is so much progress happening in BC, with the government investing in overdose prevention sites, treatment responses, and supportive community based services, frontline teams fighting tirelessly for safer alternatives to toxic street drugs. British Columbia is a leader in the response, well positioned to alter the trajectory of this crisis. BC has a proven history of tackling wicked problems in innovative ways. The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV has been an international leader in the HIV epidemic. Through the work of the Centre and its pioneer Dr. Julio Montagner, focused on HIV treatment as prevention inspired global targets to eliminate AIDS by 2030. Treatment as prevention dramatically reduced the rates of HIV transmission in British Columbia and inspired the world to adopt this approach, as championed by the United Nations.
I am proud of BC and the work that has been done. I am encouraged by the public rallying we have seen, and I remain hopeful in light of the progress we have seen in other areas of public health. Today, this is what I see:
- During the COVID pandemic, we have been tuning in daily with apt attention to monitor the case counts, hospitalizations, and COVID-19 fatalities.
- We listened to our public health and government leaders bestow key messages about preventing COVID-19 through washing our hands, not touching our faces, and isolating if unwell.
- We worked together to prevent transmission and keep case counts low, helping our health system catch up and build capacity to manage this new pathogen. We all did it, individually but also together.
- With COVID-19, masks quickly became a nouveau fashion accessory; we even banged pots, painted murals and created community slogans of support.
How can we create the same kind of momentum, where every day is Overdose Awareness day?
With the toxic drug poisoning crisis, and our urgent split in focus to COVID-19, we are caught in two public health emergencies, both demanding our attention and our action. We have demonstrated that we can work together to address a crisis. Every crisis asks us to look upstream and invest in the long game. Today, I want us to remember what momentum looks like and what we can do when we all look in the same direction. Everyday can be International Overdose Awareness Day because the numbers tell us, whether we are looking or not, it actually is.
This independent article was contributed to PowHERhouse Impact Media's blog as a personal reflection and is not affiliated in any way to the views, opinion, or position of Island Health.