Sunday, March 8, 2020

Epidemic Panic - ME/them

I recently read two articles in Vox by senior correspondent German Lopez.  One, co-authored with Julia Belluz, titled “Wash You Damn Hands,, is a measured, 
sensible, and practical guide for individuals on responding to the Covid-19 virus outbreak. The other is one of an important series Lopez is working on - “The Rehab Racket: Investigating the high cost of addiction care”.  Each an article on an epidemic.

Hand washing is prompted by a response to the most recent health scare, the Covid-19 virus.  Since December the news has abounded with stories about the Covid-19 virus.  Just as Zika, MERS, SARS, and Ebola – to name a few – have clamored for our attention in years past via all media available.  The collective anxiety over the threat of catching one of these headline grabbing diseases, much less dying from one, is palpable. The stock market stumbles and tumbles.  Congress quickly approves billions of dollars for research and prevention measures. Yet, counter to the panic surrounding these diseases, a March NBC News report lists the combined death toll for Covid-19, SARS, and MERS at just under 5,000 deaths.  

Meanwhile, German Lopez continues to write regularly about a far more devastating epidemic, Substance Use Disorder, SUD. There are few headlines, unless a celebrity dies.  As I write, today like every day, 185 Americans will die from drug overdoses.  In four weeks’ time overdose deaths will surpass the 5,000 viral deaths.  Annual death rates for SUD have climbed from 47,000 in 2014 to 72,000 in 2017.  The first step backward came in 2018 at 68,000.  Given the stigma around SUD those deaths are most likely significantly underreported. 

Why the disparity in our collective consciousness and reporting in the media between the two epidemics?  I believe the answer is simple. When we learn about a virus, we immediately don a mask, literally or figuratively or both, out of fear that the disease could strike us. The thought is, “I could catch this.  It could kill ME!”

SUD, on the other hand, while far more prevalent, is something that strikes “the other”, THEM. People we accuse of making bad choices. People we think of as bad people.  People we isolate in a sort of permanent quarantine, to be shunned and blamed for their misfortune.  Viral killers like Covid-19 fall under our control when we talk about them and actively confront them. SUD’s stalk us in the dark of willful ignorance, while we wash our hands of the plight of those suffering the disease.       

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