Given its body count and tenacity, the opioid crisis could fall into the same category as other devastating public health epidemics throughout history. The plague, cholera, yellow fever, Spanish flu, and AIDS were disasters that slammed through society, laying waste to thousands – in some cases, millions – of lives.
The official response to those crises ultimately led to big advances in research and medicine, in approaches to public health, and even in urban design and improved sanitary systems. Often, though, the responses to these crises came in fits and starts, and were marked by strange remedies — urine baths and leeches for the plague, for example — that made things worse.
Obviously, as society evolved and advanced, responses to crises have, too. The city's current response to the opioid crisis is a good example.
On Wednesday, the city cleared out two encampments in Kensington where hundreds of addicted people lived (and many died). That cleanup was important to the neighborhood that has been the hardest-hit during this crisis. The city's action isn't just about banishing a troubled population, but corralling people with problems to get access to housing, treatment, and other support.
This approach diverts from the past not just in the millions of dollars that will be spent, or the high level of interagency and interdepartmental cooperation it has taken the city to draw up a blueprint for response, but in the focus on supporting people who have fallen to the disease of opioid addiction with housing, treatment and vocational help. Even the language of response – warm handoffs, harm reduction— speak to a shift away from harsher, criminalizing responses that have been hallmarks of the past.
The city is providing housing options that don't require sobriety, and medically based treatment options – but can cover only a percentage of people who need such supports. Protesters at the Kensington sites last week claimed the camps should have been left to stand until the city could deal with the entire population. Others say that these specialized services for addicted people ignore the lack of housing for the city's larger homeless population.
But the city deserves credit for creating what is essentially a thoughtful response: one that puts humanity first and counters the usual government response of denial, incarceration, demonization, and despair. Those were the hallmarks of the crack epidemic of the '80s and '90s, when we locked up thousands of people, mostly black. But this harshness is also the way government and society often respond to anyone suffering – from hunger, unemployment, illness, or poverty.
Taking on the opioid crisis will be staggeringly expensive. Recently, Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) released an analysis that claimed that the cost of the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania for 2016 alone was over $53 billion. The most staggering costs are human; Opioids rip apart families, divide communities and carry stigmas that make it hard to reach consensus.