by Trevor Lapointe
How stigmatization may be inadvertently saving these communities from exposure to COVID-19
Since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 made its way to Canada, the spike in overdose deaths among people who use drugs has continued to increase – especially in Vancouver’s lower East side. Initially many feared that these communities, already living on the margins and unable to access adequate shelter for quarantine, would be hit extremely hard by COVID. Curiously, despite record numbers in overdose deaths, the positive cases for Coronavirus remain low among this demographic.
Perhaps a moot point
This would be good news if dodging the COVID bullet didn’t mean putting these people directly in front of the opioid poisoning train. I have argued before that decriminalizing all illicit substances would help in stopping bad actors from flooding our shores with synthetic fentanyl. I have deplored policy makers’ inability to move on this, leaving the supply side and quality control up to low level street dealers; cutting these narcotics into any drug they can to up their profits, meanwhile killing Canadians in droves. Unfortunately, this sort of logic does not bode well politically or socially as our society seemingly believes less in mercy and more in punishment. Bottom line is, while Canadians have done extremely well at not politicizing the public health crisis we’re living in now (COVID-19), nothing could be further from the truth as it relates to Canada’s opioid crisis.
Keep tight to your social bubble – yeah that won’t be a problem
Arguably the drug using communities in Canada are keeping to their ‘social bubbles’ and following the suggestions of public health more than anyone. This of course is no accident, and by no means their attempt at leading by example to turn the heads of those attending “super spreader” parties in the suburbs. Put simply, in many ways, they’re already used to this. In large part due to criminalization and threat of incarceration, forced isolation is nothing new for people who use drugs. In 2018, drug arrests in Canada exceeded 84,000 which equated to about 230 a day. These numbers only appear to be increasing two years later. So much so in fact, that provincial corrections facilities are releasing low-level drug offenders due to overcrowding and the new problem of COVID-19 in our prison system. Guards are turning up positive in these institutions where physical distancing is effectively impossible. Nevertheless, even in the midst of this pandemic, our government is still unwilling to decriminalize illicit drugs (even temporarily) to avoid complicating an already disastrously complex problem.
So again, hiding out in plain sight is just part and parcel for many who fall into the trap of maintaining an addiction. Further, the company kept by this demographic is typically a trusted network of likeminded friends (often tantamount to what many would consider family) working together to establish and maintain whatever safety possible and supporting one another in their ultimate goal of not becoming dope sick and falling into the grips of potentially deadly withdrawal. Of course, there are community resources that aim to mitigate risks by way of safe consumption and overdose prevention sites, but they’re not of much use if their doors aren’t open. Herein lies the rub – many contingencies available to the drug using community have had to shut down, or are running at such low capacity, the disruption of these services (while yes, helps keep COVID-19 at bay) is yielding deadly consequences for an already highly at-risk group of Canadians.
We know a lot more now – meet me outside in the park for a cold one
It has been noted by health officials and psychologists, that the response to COVID-19 may in some ways be worse than the disease. This could not be any more true for people who use drugs, once again being told to stay away and ultimately – use alone.
Underhoused people, living in poverty, have long been resigned to congregating in outdoor spaces. As blind luck would have it, this virus is reported to be fragile at best in the outdoor atmosphere. With what we now understand about the transmissibility of COVID-19, it’s quite plausible that hanging out in back alleyways and parks is safer than Karen and Brad’s living room, insofar as not catching COVID is concerned.
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, went on record at the beginning of May stating, “I am not aware of any outbreaks that have occurred in parks [or any outdoor environments of any kind]”. She goes on to note, “If we look at where really awful things have happened: [it’s been] ships, nursing homes, meatpacking plants…”
A recent peer reviewed study in China (Indoor Transmission of Sars. Cov-2, April 2020) shows very clearly that out of the 1,245 closely examined cases, the majority of infections were from household transmission. These are often people with a spouse working in long-term care, or a hospital for instance. So, who is really more at risk after all? Someone living in a tent on the beach with 4 or 5 others, who don’t work, don’t regularly enter indoor public spaces like gas stations and grocery stores, only interact with each other or, the middle-working-class family and the working poor? These are important and fascinating unforeseen nuances that extend far beyond society’s throw away class. Will the implications on working class Canadians be enough to have government rethink policy failures with a true sense of urgency, or will we just lump workers in with “addicts?”
It’s still far too early to determine what exact factors are contributing to the low numbers of COVID-19 cases among Canada’s street involved, drug using population, however, it stands to reason that a relentless summer heat wave, coupled with a national ‘stay home strategy’, is keeping exposure rates low for those stuck outside.
Trevor J. Lapointe works in community development and social welfare. He is also a musician, visual artist and freelance Writer.