John Robson: Opioid deaths show the true cost of lockdowns

If this many people are dying from the lockdowns’ impact on this one cause alone, surely the scientific approach would be to look at excess mortality from other causes

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In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic that our glorious politicians are saving us from, it might seem irrelevant, even impertinent, to die of something else. But if you noticed the appalling story in Monday’s Post about the surge in opioid overdose deaths, you might risk a little impertinence on the vexed question of what to do if a public policy issue turns out to be complicated.

COVID-19, as you know, is not complicated. We are at a turning point and the politicians are following the science. Even when scrapping some policy just introduced with the same air of certainty, or refusing to explain what this famous “science” is or how it came to be so unified yet unstable. For instance this recent trendy talk of a “circuit-breaker” shutdown. Can someone show me where such a thing has worked in practice, or been convincingly argued in theory? But I digress.

The point here isn’t the settled science. It’s the settled economics. Namely that all things in life come with tradeoffs, including panicky lockdowns, so getting COVID is not the only risk in life. It’s not even the only health risk. As these overdose deaths underline horribly.

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According to the Post, and these numbers startled me even though I was against the War on Drugs long before it was cool, British Columbia alone saw over 100 “illicit toxicity deaths” a month between March and August, and nearly 200 in May, June and July, while in Ontario, “an estimated 50 to 80 people per week are dying of overdoses, according to the chief coroner.”

Now it’s a bit odd that if I were to Google, say, “Ontario COVID deaths,” I would get a figure for Canada of 10,998. Not because it’s Canada not Ontario. Because it’s so precise. They claim to know exactly how many people have died of COVID yet when it comes to drug overdoses, which you’d think would be easier to identify, there’s an uncertainty of close to 50 per cent.

I’m not nitpicking here. I’m complaining of the pernicious habit of listing everybody who died with COVID as having died of it no matter what else they had. It’s good for inflating the numbers and doing the “don’t you know there’s a war on” bit where we all give up our freedom, Christmas and logic and just accept that small stores can’t sell flowers but big supermarkets can because they’re following the science and we face a turning point blah blah blah.

But when somebody dies suddenly with opioids in their system and no other major health problem, isn’t it easier to pinpoint the cause than when someone in their 80s with cancer and diabetes dies and you detect a possible COVID antibody?

Of course, when you get an “illicit toxicity death,” and here I might note with Rudyard Kipling that giving something a long name doesn’t make it better, there’s something else you could put on the death certificate. Namely despair. Or loneliness, unemployment or lack of exercise. Heck, you could write “lockdown” if you wanted.

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See, what the Post rightly calls “opioid overdoses” have “risen sharply since March.” In B.C., the numbers seem to have doubled or worse, and in Ontario to have risen by about 40 per cent. So unless it’s a coincidence, which seems highly unlikely, you must weigh these excess deaths against the many deaths we’ve been told the lockdown prevented. Which is questionable given that after eight months we’re facing yet another quarantine. The settled science didn’t work, did it?

Perhaps nothing would have. But to say so is not to say what we did was prudent. Especially since the settled economics, to repeat, warns us there are costs to everything. Including losing your livelihood, your social life, your workout routine and your sense of purpose. Not just abstract sociological costs. Real life costs. Even real death costs.

If Ontario and B.C. alone are seeing 200 extra opioid overdoses a month, the national figure must be at least 3,600 a year. And if that many actual individual human beings are dying from the lockdowns’ impact on this one cause alone, surely the scientific approach would be to look at excess mortality from other causes, from heart disease to alcoholism, and blame it not only on disruptions in health services but on the stress and disruption of healthy habits due to losing your job, not seeing your family and dreading the future.

Perhaps the lockdowns can be justified with all those things taken into account. But I doubt it. And they certainly aren’t being justified that way now. Instead all these costs are being swept aside with callous terms like “inessential businesses,” bureaucratic abstractions like “access to services” or bullying about being “deniers.”

Try “people are being found dead in tragic circumstances at an appalling rate.” Suddenly it’s harder to ignore, isn’t it?

National Post

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