Experiences on the Frontline
While there is a growing public awareness of the strain COVID-19 has placed on Canada's healthcare workers such as nurses and doctors, few understand how the pandemic has affected other critical frontline workers, particularly those who support people with substance use disorders.
As people with lived and living expertise (PWLLE), many members of the National Working Group act as service providers, advocates, and caregivers for other people who use drugs (PWUD).
Frontline workers and advocacy groups are constantly fighting to save lives, which can take a toll on both physical and mental health — and this has only gotten worse during the pandemic. With services shut down or running at a reduced capacity, and in person meetings — which were sites of community and support — moving online, COVID has made their work substantially more difficult. The following section describes key challenges workers and activists in our group faced.
Some of the activists and frontline workers in our Working Group have pre-existing health conditions that increase the risk of catching COVID-19. These risks and harms are also exacerbated by the closing of harm reduction services and programs. For those who jobs and programs stayed open, they are at an increased risk of getting COVID-19 as well.
This group faces unique challenges. Not only do they belong to a population that are at an increased risk of complications from COVID-19 due to pre-existing and underlying health conditions (which can be complicated further by limited access to critical harm reduction services and programs), but some in the group also facilitate access and provide harm reduction services to PWUD in-person, increasing the risk of virus transmission.
In conversations with people in the group, many pointed out that working in-person has always come with risks, but that "we choose the job, that type of work, because we have that passion for it." Says one member:
"If we didn't have the passion, you know, people wouldn't be doing this job. It's very dangerous. It's a very dangerous job. Not because of COVID alone. Before COVID it was dangerous. And it will always be dangerous. But that's not to say, you know, that we canot do something to help the people at the front lines, and I'm not talking about the doctors and the nurses. I'm talking about the workers themselves. The low-paid people."
When the pandemic hit, services closed or reduced their hours. Some folks found themselves working from home, which is difficult when you're normally working face-to-face with clients, both logistically in how to provide services, but also emotionally.
On an individual level, it's difficult to lose the ability to provide that support, especially when it's most needed, which compounded the other stresses we all have faced during this pandemic. One member explains how this feeling led to drug use behaviour that was harmful and out of the ordinary for them:
"So I get a lot of joy out of [helping others] and I think that's a lot of the reason why I crashed so hard too, because I wasn't able to do it being locked down for so long, you know. I get a lot of joy out of just bringing a little bit of joy to somebody else and not been able to do any of that, it was just, ended up hurting myself pretty bad."
Others described how their isolation from clients at harm reduction services and their friends who use drugs led to immense stress daily:
"I get a little antsy working from home. I don't feel like I'm doing my part of... for the people who use drugs, you know. Because of my age and my experience, I know the much older clientele that some of our newer staff don't know and nor do that population really want to get to know the younger population. They figure they got attitude and think they know it all. So that clientele of mine is starting to really die out and thin out quite a bit because a lot of people that I've, that were my clients and that were very near and dear to me have passed on...and overdosed, which could have been prevented if they would have just used the damn site."
All of these emotions are complicated further by grief of losing clients, friends, and loved ones to overdoses and COVID, and how difficult it is to grieve those who were lost to the war on drugs during the pandemic, especially when you're isolated:
"You know, if you're on the street and somebody said to you this person died, and you can take that time, you can take that moment, and reflect and to comfort each other, because it is not just the person telling you about somebody that they know died. It's a person telling you about somebody you know died. And it is like a mutual impact."
But during the pandemic, we have to hear about these losses while being "socially distanced" from them. As one member described, "it's really hard because you just deal with one and the next day you read another email and somebody else that you know and cared for has gone."
In March 2021, Karen Turner, who was a member of the National Working Group, and who participated in some of the calls that make up Stories from the Frontline, passed away, and one of the staff, Alex, found out about Karen's death on Twitter and wrote one of those emails to let everyone know. Part of that message has been included in the conclusion of "Episode 23: Cop Free Future" on the Crackdown Podcast (42:37):