Editorial

Beneath the all-consuming waves of the coronavirus pandemic, another deadly public health crisis has been festering in obscurity.

Beneath the all-consuming waves of the coronavirus pandemic, another deadly public health crisis has been festering in obscurity.

Last year, 372 people died of drug overdoses in Manitoba — a horrifying 87 per cent spike over 2019 fatalities, according to data released by the office of the chief medical examiner last week. Behind those data points are parents, spouses, friends and family members who have been failed by government inaction.

Drug overdose deaths spike by 87 per cent in 2020

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Rebecca Rummery lost her partner Rob to an accidental drug overdose in 2018. (Abby Matheson photo)						</p>
Rebecca Rummery lost her partner Rob to an accidental drug overdose in 2018. (Abby Matheson photo)

Posted: 6:14 PM Apr. 20, 2021

Annual drug overdose deaths reached an all-time high in Manitoba, after 372 people died in 2020, marking an 87 per cent increase in reported deaths over 2019.

“We knew it was going to be high, but it doesn’t make it easier when you see these numbers,” said Rebecca Rummery, co-founder of Overdose Awareness Manitoba. “It’s people we’re talking about, and they all have families and loved ones.”

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The pandemic has poured fuel on an epidemic that has been raging in Manitoba and across the country for years. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, has been linked to a rise in overdose deaths locally and nationally since at least 2016. In Winnipeg, methamphetamine use was the crisis dominating headlines until COVID-19 arrived in town. Even though attention has waned, the damage is ongoing and getting worse.

Stress, anxiety and social isolation makes for a dangerous combination when people use drugs. The likelihood of overdose increases with isolation, our main defence against the virus, and public health orders have made it harder to access Manitoba’s few in-person addiction treatment programs and detox facilities — Main Street Project, for example, has had to reduce its number of detox beds to meet restrictions.

At the same time, virtual counselling, while crucial during the pandemic, is generally less effective and isn’t accessible for everyone, according to a report from the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction.

The closure of the United States border has also disrupted the illicit drug supply in Canada, leading to higher toxicity and higher risk of overdose. Taken together, the forces working against someone battling addiction are of epic proportions.

In an open letter published last week, the Manitoba Harm Reduction Network called on the province to address the impact COVID-19 is having on people who use drugs, particularly when it comes to vulnerable populations. Addiction doesn’t happen in a vacuum and social inequalities — like unemployment, poverty and homelessness — contribute to higher drug use. Those same inequalities put people at greater risk of contracting COVID-19; providing safe shelter and a long-term housing strategy would go a long way in tackling both crises.

The network also recommends that the province decriminalize illegal drugs and drug use; expand access to a safe supply of opioids and stimulants, similar to alcohol and cannabis; and make naloxone kits widely available — currently, Manitobans can only get the lifesaving overdose medication through a health-care professional.

The letter — signed by more than 40 organizations and 317 doctors, nurses, academics and social service providers — is likely to have fallen on deaf ears. Time and again, Premier Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government has demonstrated an aversion to evidence-based harm reduction strategies.

Drug use won’t go away and trying to fight addiction solely with prevention ignores those who are already in the throes of it.

Supervised consumption sites exist in nearly every Canadian province except Manitoba. These facilities have been proven to save lives and reduce the spread of infectious diseases. They are also an effective way to connect people with addiction treatment programs.

In response to a 2019 local feasibility study on such sites, then health minister Cameron Friesen said, "Our premier has been very clear: there really is no such thing as a ‘safe’ methamphetamine injection site."

While 63 per cent of Manitobans polled in 2020 supported the development of safe consumption sites, sentiment among the provincial government remains unchanged.

Drug use won’t go away and trying to fight addiction solely with prevention ignores those who are already in the throes of it. People who use drugs deserve safety and support, otherwise they are vulnerable to becoming another gruesome statistic.