National Union calls on feds to declare overdose crisis a public health emergency
“My union recently convened a meeting of front-line workers from a wide range of communities from across the country who are dealing with the overdose crisis. I wish you could have heard their comments. Speaker after speaker impressed upon me the urgency of the situation.” — Larry Brown, President NUPGE
Ottawa (22 April 2021) – Larry Brown, president of the 390,000 member National Union of Public and General Employees has written to Patty Hajdu, Canada’s Minister of Health, urging the government to declare a national public health emergency, as was done in British Columbia in 2017, for the ongoing overdose and opioid crisis in Canada.
"My union recently convened a meeting of front-line workers from a wide range of communities from across the country who are dealing with the overdose crisis. I wish you could have heard their comments,” wrote Brown.
“These are some of the most knowledgeable people in Canada on the extent of this crisis. They are one of the most dedicated and compassionate groups of people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Speaker after speaker impressed upon me the urgency of the situation.”
Pandemic has made a bad situation worse
In his letter Brown points out that the “the COVID-19 pandemic has made the overdose/opioid crisis worse. While some progress was made in addressing the crisis prior to the pandemic, we have seen the numbers dramatically increase since.”
A number of reasons are seen as significant factors in the worsening situation. Some of these have been already highlighted by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
- There has been an increased adulteration of illegal supply — as the pandemic disrupted the supply chain, it became more susceptible to contamination with toxic substances.
- There has been a reduced access to services across the country. While there has always been an inadequate patchwork of services across Canada, the pandemic has even exacerbated the situation.
- Physical distancing guidelines at overdose sites are reducing the number of people getting assistance.
- Increased social isolation both exacerbated use and also reduced the likelihood of intervention in the case of an overdose.
- Pandemic protocols in social housing enforced this isolation and reduced supports to individuals.
- Governments diverted funding from, or outright cut funding to, front-line aid.
Lack of attention being paid to crisis
“On top of this, the pandemic has largely pushed the overdose/opioid crisis out of the public discourse,” wrote Brown. “It is perhaps understandable that COVID-19 has taken some precedence in the media. However, this continues to be a widespread public health emergency. Urgent action is needed to save lives.”
Brown identifies the following as necessary first steps to respond to the crisis:
- Declare a public health emergency for overdoses.
- Improve training for front-line workers, in a broad range of occupations, in how to appropriately respond to an overdose.
- Foster greater public awareness and education around drug use and the overdose risk.
- Increase public efforts for reducing stigma, because drugs are used across the board by all levels of society; thus, we need to encourage people to step forward, yet not be stigmatized.
- Legislate action towards providing a safe supply for those who use drugs.
Attention needed to social determinants of health
Brown points out that all these measures “must be accompanied by efforts to address many of the social determinants of health. There is strong evidence that the crisis is linked to the lack of affordable housing, and to a lack of services to support those with a mental injury.”
Brown ends the letter by reiterating his call for urgent action. “All levels of governments need to adopt a public health approach to the crisis instead of focusing on crime and punishment. I urge you and your government to declare this to be a public health crisis and consult with stakeholders, including my union’s members, on the extent of the crisis and best practices for moving forward.”
Tue, 04/20/2021 - 11:59 am
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE