A growing body of research suggests Black Americans have suffered the heaviest toll from drug overdose deaths that have increased exponentially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports NPR. Overall, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say fatal drug overdoses nationwide have surged roughly 20 percent during the pandemic, killing more than 83,000 people in 2020.
An analysis of drug overdose data in Philadelphia found that overdose deaths surged more than 50 percent among the city’s Black residents while overdose fatalities of whites remained flat or even decreased. In California, a similar study’s preliminary findings show Black overdose deaths rising significantly faster than among whites. Even before the pandemic, studies showed overdose rates in Black communities rising much faster than among whites.
The trend reflects the spread of fentanyl, a toxic synthetic opioid that contaminates street drugs sold illegally in the U.S., but also points to the residual effects of America’s drug war, which shaped what many experts describe as a two-track system for people experiencing addiction: while addiction in whites and the financially well off is treated as an illness, people of color and the poor rarely gain access to treatment and regularly face arrest and incarceration.
Addiction experts describe “treatment deserts” in many Black communities, where high-quality, affordable rehab programs are scarce or nonexistent. Last week, the American Society of Addiction Medicine released a policy statement condemning “systemic racism in drug policy and addiction medicine” and demanding reforms. A 2019 study showed Black patients with opioid use disorder were 35 times less likely than whites to be prescribed Buprenorphine, a medication considered highly effective in preventing relapses and fatal overdoses.
And while a study published last month found overdose deaths in urban communities could be reduced by as much as 40 percent within two years, researchers acknowledge saving those lives would require sweeping changes, including much wider access to drug-treatment medications as well as long-term care designed to keep people in recovery.