Picture: 123RF/Pavel Chagochkin
Picture: 123RF/Pavel Chagochkin

Every year since 2017 the US department of health & human services has declared opioid misuse to be a nationwide emergency. Since January, when the agency made its latest declaration, the problem has worsened. From January to June abuse of synthetic and illegal opioids rose 13%. Fatal overdoses have already topped 2019’s record-setting figures.

What’s different about the increase so far in 2020, however, is that the causes are pretty clear: social isolation and high joblessness brought on by Covid-19. Now instead of focusing mainly on stopping the flow of drugs or improving addiction treatment, the US has gained a new perspective on prevention. And that doesn’t just mean loosening isolation rules, opening businesses, or boosting federal economic aid. Those measures will be needed for some time to stop the pandemic.

No, the broader lens now is on the many primary solutions that can forestall drug abuse. And it’s being helped along by 2020’s social justice movement, which is exposing once again the roots of poverty and despair that lie behind much of the drug problem. In August, the American College of Preventive Medicine took up arms for this cause. It issued a statement that said a “deep ethical imperative” exists to address all the “social determinants” of drug misuse, from race to education to crime.

Prevention programmes must expand far beyond popular approaches such as anti-drug education in schools and the campaign to reduce opioid prescriptions. Current trends towards opioid misuse favour a pharmacological approach rather than one that deals with the complex societal issues that drive the problem. The US must find better ways to strengthen families, end child abuse, provide affordable homes, train people for jobs and improve mental health services.

After many years of a national drug emergency — now made worse by the pandemic — a bright light has finally fallen on the need to find better ways to help people steer clear of drugs. Treatment can begin long before addiction starts, by bringing health, home, purpose and community to everyone. /Boston, September 10

Christian Science Monitor

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