Marilou Gagnon: Government negligence on full display as overdose deaths continue to rise

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      On April 16 2016, the province of British Columbia declared a public health emergency under Section 52 (2) of the Public Health Act in response to an increased in overdoses and overdose deaths.

      British Columbians now have a clear understanding of the significance and seriousness of a public crisis requiring this type of government intervention.

      On March 17, 2020, the province declared a public health emergency using the same provision and legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

      As shown since the beginning of the pandemic, a government in “emergency mode” provides daily updates and communicates steps being taken to respond to the public health risks, implements and adjusts public health measures to protect the health and lives of its constituents, allocates additional funding and supports rapidly to have an impact on the ground, and experiences a sense of failure and urgency every time one person dies.

      To date, 1,577 people have died of COVID-19 in the province. We are reminded, every day, with each briefing, that each death is tragic. Indeed, it is. We are reminded of the collective mourning we are experiencing across this province, by families, care providers, and community members.

      Today, I watched the daily briefing as we learned that one person died of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours. I expected a mention of the five people, on average, who die every day from an overdose—or the 500 people who died of an overdose in the past three months, in large part due to increased risks associated with COVID-19 measures and inadequate planning to meet the needs of people who use substances amid a poisoned and changing drug supply.


      More than 7,000 people have died of an overdose in British Columbia in 5 years.

      Since COVID-19, overdoses and overdose deaths have been rising at an alarming rate. Every month, we hear of a record number of deaths. In March 2021 alone, there were 158 deaths, up 42% from last year.

      More than five people dying every day. Hundreds of 911 calls every day. On Wednesday, April 21, 2021, paramedics in British Columbia responded to 138 overdoses—the highest ever recorded.

      There is no doubt that if this many people were dying of COVID-19, the province would be taking all the measures necessary to keep people safe, to keep people alive.

      After five years of advocating for a proper emergency response to the overdose crisis, many of us are at a loss for words and arguments. The collective grief, trauma, and stress is at an all-time high. Bodies are piling up. Lives are reduced to numbers.

      Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides the number of deaths due to COVID-19 in daily briefings, but the province does little in terms of preventing overdose-epidemic deaths.

      This cannot be the “new normal”. Under no circumstances is this death toll normal.  

      Overdose deaths are preventable.

      Failing to do what is required, with urgency, and using all the tools at our disposal in British Columbia and powers under the Public Health Act to prevent overdose deaths is negligence.

      In 2017, a court in Japan ruled that government negligence had contributed to the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The court recognized that the government had failed in its duty to protect the health and safety of its constituents—that poor regulation played a part in the disaster. It considered that the risk of harm was foreseeable and required government intervention. The court also recognized the damages experienced by the plaintiffs (thousands of evacuees) and awarded them compensation.

      We are likely to see similar cases arise in Canada to hold governments, and the private sector, accountable for failing to act despite decades of evidence pointing to neglect in long-term care—neglect that has contributed to the preventable deaths of thousands of our elders during the past year.

      I am not a lawyer, and my intent is not to make a legal argument.

      I am simply pointing out the obvious as the death toll in the province continues to rise, month after month. As a nurse, I can be found guilty of negligence for failing to take the necessary steps to save a life. The same standard should apply to a government that fails to act responsibly and diligently in the face of foreseeable and documented risks—and repeated asks for more actions.

      Marilou Gagnon, RN, PhD, is an associate professor in nursing at the University of Victoria, a scientist at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, and president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association.