Before there was COVID-19, there were whispers about another epidemic slowly eroding the human population. Unlike COVID-19, however, that epidemic didn’t get anyone to social distance, didn’t get any business shut down, and it certainly wasn’t in your newsfeed 24/7. But, “2018 data shows that every day, 128 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids,” according to a study done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). That’s more than 46,000 people a year! Unlike a virus, however, addiction doesn’t spread like an infectious disease, it is not contagious. But much like a virus, addiction affects not only those affected by it but everyone else around them. It destroys families, relationships, and businesses. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total ‘economic burden’ of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement,” says the same NIDA study.
We are currently in a massive economic crisis because of the coronavirus. The world, as we knew it, has ended, and no one can correctly predict the lasting consequence of this shutdown. People are told to stay home to curb the spread of the virus, and many are in danger of losing their jobs or have lost their jobs already. One positive thing, however, is that a lot of people are uniting in their fight against the virus. There have been celebrity PSAs, there are constant news updates; it is impossible to get a break from the corona. And that’s good—that ultimately will save us as coming together and helping one another is the only way to fight something as large as an epidemic.
I can’t help but wish that addiction and all those unnecessary deaths from overdose got one-hundredth of the “publicity” that COVID-19 does. No, this is not a competition, and I understand that the two afflictions are very different from one another, but both kill people. And they are similar in the way that most of their fatal victims are said to have been more vulnerable than others who might struggle with the same thing. With addiction, you’re dealing with a deathly cocktail of genetics, environment, and psychological trauma. With COVID-19, it is your immune system that is compromised. Yet, people still see addiction as “choice” or a “moral failure”—something that its sufferers are guilty of. A product of two parents with substance use disorder, who has grown up in hardship and who has experienced trauma, is still somehow responsible for the way she has responded to it by using drugs. Her death from an overdose will most likely be blamed on her “chosen” lifestyle and her lack of trying to find better ways to cope with mental anguish. It’s hard to find sympathy for someone who chooses to throw her life away, isn’t it?
With this current and very real threat on the horizon, I’m hoping for all of us to wake up and feel sympathy for one another. I’ve seen a lot of initiatives already where people are selflessly helping each other as we battle this together. I know we are capable of so much empathy because I’m witnessing it first-hand—people are reaching out to strangers. We are all in this together. It is my hope that we will remember this time when it’s finally over as a great unifier. And through that, that we will now know how to appropriately respond to other people struggling—that’s because we’ve all struggled and we’ll know what it’s like to ask for help. And we will be able to look outside of ourselves to see those who are less fortunate than us. That person who looks nothing like you, in need of money or food, will finally look like another person, not a thing that you’ve nothing in common with. That is my hope.
When this is all over, perhaps we will consider the other, quiet epidemic as our universal problem, not something that is isolated, and unrelatable. We are learning today that we all have more in common with each other than we ever knew. Pay attention to those lessons. I know I am.
“Too early” for this post in light of the COVID-19 we’re all fighting? I think not. It’s been here all along and will be forever if we don’t band together to fight it.
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