A few weeks ago when the CDC announced we’d passed 100,000 recorded overdose deaths in a 12-month period, I wondered if maybe I had to write something about it. It was obviously the sort of news we cover at Filter. And there are only a couple of days a year when the mass deaths can be briefly unignorable for the public who aren’t paying attention to them and the public officials who are causing them.
But commenting on another surpassed fatality record, this time involving a rounder number, felt obligatory; automated, almost. Just speaking for me personally. I ended up just letting the moment pass because I didn’t have anything to say about it. We knew this was the trajectory we were on, regardless of how hard we were all pulling, in our respective work, to help turn the ship around.
We are being denied a regulated supply. In a pandemic. When I read that number, I didn’t feel like I was learning anything.
On December 30, the CDC National Center for Health Statistics released a report on overdose fatalities from 1999 to 2020, containing a table that tallies the deaths for each year. They total 932,364, which means the United States is now well past 1 million overdose deaths since the CDC began recording them. It’s hard to think how many go unrecorded.
Everything keeps accelerating. We lose more and more people, and we have less and less time to grieve them. And to make sure they’re remembered, the way everyone killed under these policies deserves to be remembered.
There was talk this year about how harm reduction is now being embraced by the federal government. Instead of moving to end the overdose crisis by regulating (along with all state-banned drugs) fentanyl and its analogues, the Biden administration wants to do the opposite of that, when we know that harsher criminalization increases police violence against Black and Brown people and makes the supply even more toxic. Meanwhile we’re still in a naloxone shortage.
The government funded fentanyl test strips this year, which are great options to have around, sure, but kind of do nothing to save the people most at risk of overdose. Maybe if each set of strips came stapled to a bag whose contents were labeled and already checked as fent-free using something much more expensive. Meanwhile the DEA is doing buprenorphine raids to crack down on “diversion,” when the evidence clearly indicates that the appropriate way to dispense bupe is to launch it freely into the streets with a T-shirt cannon. If saving lives is the idea.
When I think about the people we lost this year, I think about people who didn’t overdose but who were also absolutely killed by the drug war. The people we lost to incarceration; treatable disease; medical racism; the cold. State violence and disinterest.
It feels rare now to go a week without seeing someone suddenly become the numbers. They may not be someone we know, but pretty much anywhere we look these days someone is being mourned—around the neighborhood, on outreach, online, on Zooms.
It’s awful watching people process injustice on top of grief, but there were a number of times this year when I was very comforted by hearing someone I didn’t really know speak about someone they’d lost.
That was one less person to just exist as a number; that person was remembered. By a community doing its best to find time not just for the work, but to miss everyone properly.
Photograph by Pexels via Pixabay