LETTER FROM SAN FRANCISCO
Number of deaths from Covid-19 in San Francisco in 2020? 235. Number of overdose victims? 699. The city’s medical examiner’s report released in January created a shock: last year, drugs killed three times as many people as the pandemic. An absolute record: in 2019, overdoses killed 441 people, already an increase of 70% compared to 2018 (259 deaths). In 2020, San Francisco – which has the lowest Covid-19 death rate of any major US city – lost two people a day, on average, to drugs. An epidemic “Silent”, hidden in the back alleys of the city center and hotel rooms for the poor.
As in the rest of the United States, most overdoses are linked to the consumption of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, which appeared in the eastern United States in 2013, and five years later in the San Francisco Bay area. A marked increase in consumption, although less than in California, has been noted nationally. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the federal public health agency, 91,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses between May 2019 and May 2020. The annual toll has exceeded that of the Vietnam War, and since 2017, that of road accidents.
Fentanyl is fifty times more potent than heroin. In San Francisco, it is found for 20 dollars (20.56 euros) the 500 mg at the corner of Market Street, in the district of Tenderloin, an interlacing of a few streets delivered for decades to drug dealers and the homeless. This is where a quarter of the deaths have occurred: with the lockdown, Tenderloin has become an open-air drug market. The inhabitants and the Homeless Coalition, the association for the defense of the homeless, accuse the public authorities of letting it go and of treating the neighborhood as a “containment zone”, where delinquency is tolerated to spare the rest of the city . In May 2020, Hastings Law School at the University of California and several other residents filed a complaint against the municipality: they had counted more than 400 tents in the neighborhood. The town hall has rehoused the homeless in cheap hotels and opened several car parks for official “Covid” camps.
The pandemic has worsened addictions. “The golden rule of overdose prevention is to prevent the individual from being left alone”, explains Kirsten Marshall, head of the DOPE (“drug overdose prevention and education”) project, a city-funded assistance program. Confinement, on the contrary, imposed distancing. For several months, the rescue teams, who usually take turns in the neighborhood, interrupted their rounds. According to San Francisco Chronicle, which released a map locating the deaths, the majority of which occurred in hotel rooms made available to the homeless by the municipality. Some were not discovered until several days later. Andre Edwards known as “Dre”, an activist of “Safe spaces”, these places open for “safe” injections, who had made quite a few friends in twenty years of living on the streets, died all alone. A few weeks earlier, he had been happy to finally have a home.
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