Addiction vs. COVID-19 : How our Country is Responding and a Look at What it Means

By Michael Leach 04/27/20

COVID-19 vs. Addiction

What we can learn by comparing our nation’s response to these public health threats.

Unprecedented circumstances and cooperation

With COVID-19 hitting America hard, we have seen an enormous change in the way we operate. The United States has shut down all non-essential business interaction, millions of people are out of work, and those who still have a job are working from home unless their work falls within the umbrella of what has deemed to be an essential business. This shutdown of commerce and social interaction is unprecedented, and though some are reluctant to comply, the majority of our citizens are taking their social responsibility very seriously.  

On top of this, government agencies around the country are making strict policies and enforcing them to ensure individuals who do not agree with the proposed restrictions act accordingly to ensure the safety of others. Studies have shown that COVID-19 is a severe threat, and if we do not take necessary precautions, many individuals will die. I applaud Americans and our leaders for following through with protocols that seemed unrealistic. It's refreshing to know our country can confront this danger that threatens so many lives and can band together to make a difference. 

A duality in how we deal

That being said, why are Americans more prone to band together for a pandemic like the Coronavirus, but have gained little traction in the epidemic of substance abuse? Both of these are national crises that threaten hundreds of thousands of lives. But we put everything on hold for one, and it's business as usual for the other. This duality in how we handle these things is problematic, especially when you look at the statistics.  

Before doing so, it's important to note the threat that Substance abuse and COVID-19 present to our country is complicated and hard to measure accurately. Both public health hazards are unique, and each has circumstances surrounding them, making it hard to get realistic numbers. Let's examine these conditions, so we get the most accurate representation of how both are affecting our society.

COVID-19’s underestimated effect

Let's start with COVID-19. According to the latest information from the CDC, the Coronavirus has claimed over 37,000 lives. Though this number is staggering, many health professionals feel it is inaccurate.  USA Today recently did an investigation into the claim that there was incorrect inflation of COVID-19 deaths, but what they discovered was the opposite.

Multiple doctors speak to factors that are causing Coronavirus deaths to be under-reported. Lack of testing available and false positives have a big part to play. If an individual cannot be diagnosed or there is a misdiagnosis, then it takes away from the overall count of COVID-19 casualties. On top of this, people are dying in their homes without receiving testing. Many unconfirmed cases could very well be victims of the Coronavirus. Looking at these factors, one can reasonably assume that COVID-19 deaths are higher than initially reported. And while recent data suggest we are losing approximately 624 individuals daily to the Coronavirus, it could be a lot more.

Unseen dangers of substance abuse

Similarly, to COVID-19, substance abuse circumstance surrounding it that indicate we are grossly underestimating its effect on our society. According to the CDC, there were over 67,000 deaths in 2018 from a drug overdose. That's an average of around 180 deaths a day, but the caveat is that it only examines deaths due to overdose. The Medical News Today recently published an article that explores this anomaly based on research done by professors at Georgetown University.

By looking at the overall effect drugs have on the body and mind, one can get a more accurate estimate of how substance abuse is affecting our society. The use of drugs contributes to many health issues. According to the research mentioned above, the circulatory, respiratory, cardiovascular, and digestive systems are all negatively affected by drug abuse to the degree it might increase mortality. Taking this into account, we see that there are a lot more drug-related deaths than just over-doses. But how much more?

The two professors from Georgetown, Prof. Preston & Dr. Glei, estimated the real number of drug-rate deaths to be more than double the number of reported deaths due to only drug overdoses. Meaning, within a given year, substance misuse is responsible for the death of close to 150,000 people.

Comparable threats, incomparable solutions

When examining both public health emergencies, one can see that substance abuse is a comparable threat to COVID-19 and may be more deadly. The biggest reason for this may be that COVID-19 is merely rendered more debilitating by underlying conditions, while drug use helps in the initial creation of the underlying health issues. Due to this phenomenon, it's reasonable to believe that some Coronavirus deaths could even be a direct effect of chronic or acute substance misuse.

Knowing what we know now, let's circle back to the original question. Why do we see more compliance and support to end the spread of COVID-19, but continue to flounder with our fight against substance abuse? We've established it is not a more significant threat. So, what could it be? The answer may lie in the way our society views the use of drugs and alcohol.

A society of substance

When we examine our society during this pandemic, one thing we shouldn't ignore is that liquor stores and many marijuana dispensaries are considered essential businesses. I am not here to argue the validity of these facilities categorized as such, but it does illustrate how our culture feels about the use of drugs and alcohol. During times of crisis, we consider drugs and alcohol necessary.  


It's part of many individual's lifestyles, so when we seek to prevent the abuse of these and other substances, people tend to get rigid. Their idea is that another person's failure to control themselves is not their "problem." This viewpoint creates an inability to look at what they can do to help change the tide in the drug epidemic. 


Another observable difference between drugs and COVID-19 is that there is no doubt that everyone wants to do away with the Coronavirus, but we can't say the same for the use of drugs and alcohol. It is part of our culture. And for every one person that is addicted, there is another one who does not have a problem. Since substance misuse impacts so many people in so many ways, it is tough to build a unified front.

What American’s want

Keeping this in mind, I think our country has proven it can accomplish anything when we are united. At this point, we have successfully curbed the spread of COVID-19. It was not easy, but through coordination and a unified goal, we were able to make a significant impact on something that could have spiraled out of control. Taking this into consideration, I think it's time we face the inconvenient truth that drugs aren't going anywhere because our society doesn't want them to.  

The death, disease, crime, and other health issues that can be directly related to substance abuse does not change the fact that Americans like drugs. There is even the creation of Drug User Unions in some regions of the country to fight for the rights of illicit substance users. Regardless of your stance, these unions are a clear sign that drugs aren't going anywhere.

Taking all this into account, what can our society do to prevent itself from the dangers of substance abuse. We have already fought a full-fledged "War on Drugs" and lost. Harm reduction seems to be more popular then rehabilitation, and our society's most popular form of treatment for opioid addiction is just a different form of opiate. With a string of losing battles and concessions, it may seem that country is losing control, but I think we need to reconsider what side most American's are actually fighting for.

Divided we fall

The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how capable our country is when there is a unified goal. Likewise, the addiction epidemic has demonstrated how incapable we are when the citizens of our nation do not share the same viewpoint. Regarding substance abuse in America, it's important to realize that what some see as defeat, many see as success. And although it may be hard for some to accept, based on the current state surrounding substance abuse issues, it's evident our country spends more effort fighting for the right to use drugs.

Upon further review, my initial assumption that American's put more effort and focus on COVID-19, then substance abuse is inaccurate. With all the efforts to remove drugs from our society thwarted and more acceptance of drug culture, it's clear that our country has been able to gain a lot of ground regarding drugs. There was just some confusion as to what our society was fighting for. The painful reality to face it that many American's are not on the losing side of the "War on Drugs," some got exactly what they wanted.



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