Coronavirus and opioid crises highlighting the need for stable housing

If we want life to go back to "normal" sooner rather than later, we have to accept the fact that the health of the most vulnerable is entangled with our own

The city of Toronto has rented hotel rooms for people who live in the overcrowded shelter system and are believed to be infected with COVID-19.

Now that it is clear that the general population’s lives are unmistakably intertwined with those of the marginalized, action is finally being taken to house the most vulnerable in our society, though only temporarily.

If we had provided these individuals with long-term, stable housing years ago, we might have been able to prevent some of these COVID-19 infections in the first place.

While many of us are pleased that housing is finally being provided to those who desperately need it, the war on drugs and the resulting illicit drug supply has needlessly claimed thousands of lives due to contamination with synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, as well as untested research chemicals. This unregulated drug supply can lead to unpredictable experiences, overdoses, and deaths.

We need to go a step further for those dependent on opioids, amphetamines, and benzodiazepines in light of COVID-19.

The effects of some of these substances wear off in a matter of hours, which leaves people in an agonizing withdrawal, and leads them to the street to hustle for funds, wander the town looking for a dealer, and potentially spread COVID-19 in the process.

It is long past due to implement a wide-spread safe supply program that would provide people already dependent on these substances with a pharmaceutical-grade alternative.

Similar strategies have been implemented abroad in Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Small safe supply programs are operating in British Columbia and Ontario but desperately need to be expanded.

A safe supply would be beneficial to public health in a variety of ways.

First, if people are self-isolating with their take-home supply, they will not need to hustle or wander the streets. This prevents the spread of COVID-19.

Second, the substances will be pure, meaning that people will know which drug they’re using and the amount, which can prevent overdoses and allow emergency workers to focus on other medical emergencies. A safe supply would not only save lives but also save our desperately needed medical resources. 

Access to stable, affordable housing and a safe drug supply has been needed for many years. These strategies, which should continue indefinitely, could help us reduce overdose deaths and control COVID-19 at the same time.

If we want life to go back to ‘normal’ sooner rather than later, we have to accept the fact that the health of the most vulnerable is undoubtedly entangled with our own.

Action needs to be taken at the federal, provincial, and local levels to support stable housing and safe supply programs so we can all get outside again and start living our best lives sooner rather than later.

Sara Garnett is a chair of the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance. This article was a collaborative effort put together by the committee.


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