Advocating for harm reduction services amidst a global pandemic
Health officials are advising us to stay and work from home when possible, practise good hand hygiene, and practise social distancing to ensure public safety and health during the COVID-19 global pandemic.
These protocols are much harder to follow when you don’t have a home, a cellphone, or a way to stay connected.
According to Dr. Georgia Dewart, assistant professor in Athabasca University’s (AU) Faculty of Health Disciplines and one of the co-founders and current treasurer of Alberta Nurses Coalition for Harm Reduction (ANCHR), marginalized communities that experience substance use issues are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
“A focus on equity in our communities is what we need right now,” she said. “More than ever before, nurses need to advocate for harm-reduction services.”
Harm reduction is an evidence-based, patient-centred approach to substance use that has demonstrated positive and fiscally-responsible patient outcomes. Safe consumption sites (SCS) are a good example. SCS provide clean supplies and ensure the safety of people using drugs, while also minimizing the strain on health-care systems.
While providing a safe supply of sterile needles or SCS for injecting substances are the best-known harm-reduction strategies, the principles of harm reduction extend beyond substance use and can also include wearing masks while out in public or using a seat belt when in a vehicle.
“It is about meeting people where they’re at and finding ways to support their health, without the expectation that they stop using substances.”– Dr. Georgia Dewart, assistant professor in AU Faculty of Health Disciplines and one of the co-founders and current treasurer of Alberta Nurses Coalition for Harm Reduction (ANCHR)
According to ANCHR, harm reduction fosters relationships with marginalized populations, builds trust with people who have had negative experiences with health, social and justice systems, and reduces the stigma associated with substance use. This is particularly important right now.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic people are still using substances, but access to and them disruption in supply has become an issue. To explain further, Dewart described the current situation with liquor stores: Keeping stores open means that people who have a physical dependence on alcohol have access to a safe supply. When looking at this with a harm-reduction approach, it is reasonable to consider that keeping these stores open can actually keep people healthier, since if they were closed people might go into withdrawals, putting further pressure on the health-care system.
The needs of individuals who use substances and those who live in marginalized communities must be considered similarly when making policy and program decisions, especially in light of the current reality.
“Even though everyone’s focus is on COVID-19 right now, we still need to advocate for harm reduction and the needs of individuals who use substances,” Dewart said.
To learn more about Dr. Georgia Dewart, or research underway in the Faculty of Health Disciplines, visit the faculty website.