The New Epidemic

Andrew Sullivan is writing weekly for the New Yorker and recently wrote a great piece on the Opioid epidemic:

Those of us who lived through the AIDS epidemic retain one singular memory: The plague that ravaged our lives was largely invisible to others. The epidemic was so concentrated for a while in a gay male subculture — often itself veiled by various closet doors — that straight people without gay family members or friends couldn’t see it. There was blanket media coverage, of course. But in your everyday life, if you were straight, you could live quite easily in the 1990s without coming across someone with AIDS. While gay men were living in a medieval landscape of constant disease and death, many others carried on in safe, medical modernity, that elysian period in human history when most diseases can at least be treated, if not cured.

It occurred to me reading this reported essay by Christopher Caldwell that the opioid epidemic is the new AIDS in this respect. Its toll in one demographic — mostly white, working-class, and rural — vastly outweighs its impact among urbanites. For many of us in the elite, it’s quite possible to live our daily lives and have no connection to this devastation. And yet its ever-increasing scope, as you travel a few hours into rural America, is jaw-dropping: 52,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2015. That’s more deaths than the peak year for AIDS, which was 51,000 in 1995, before it fell in the next two years. The bulk of today’s human toll is related to opioid, heroin, and fentanyl abuse. And unlike AIDS in 1995, there’s no reason to think the worst is now over.

I’ve been somewhat skeptical of the opioid epidemic over the years but the surge in deaths in recent years has been terrifying. I don’t know that there’s a solution. So far, everything the government has done has arguably made things worse. Limiting opioid prescriptions, for example, led addicts to turn to heroin, which is far more dangerous. Forcing companies to add acetaminophen to opioids helped cause liver damage. Some policies are good (trying to stop people from combining opioids and benzodiazepines, making naloxone more available). Ultimately, however, the opioid epidemic is symptom of the disease of rural despair. And I don’t know how we fix that. But the simple fact is that we are having a crisis as real and as deadly as AIDS was.

But what’s missing this time? Attention. As Sullivan notes, AIDS became a cause célèbre in the 80’s and 90’s, with awareness ribbons and marches and increasing funding. And to be fair, many liberals publications like Vox or raising the alarm on this. But it’s not drawing anywhere near the attention that AIDS did or that gun violence is, despite now being deadlier than both. Actually, sometimes, just the opposite. Matt Stoller put together a list of comments from a HuffPo article on the opioid epidemic. And, yeah, it’s internet comments. But to comment on HuffPo, you need to have Facebook profile. So uber-tolerant, loving liberals are happy to leave comments like this under their real names:

Sorry, not sorry. These people are not worthy of any sympathy. They have run around for decades bitching about poor minorities not “working hard enough,” or that their situation is “their own fault.” Well guess what? It’s not so great when it’s you now, is it? Bunch of deplorables, and if they die quicker than the rest of us that just means the country will be better off in the long run.

They have every know advantage in America; culturally, environmentally, educationally, etc. There is absolutely no reason that they should be in such despair. They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Difficult to have any sympathy when My coverage is threatened because ignorant white trash are too stupid to know that the ACA and Evil Obamacare are the same thing. The factories closed down forty years ago. If you didn’t leave Detroit or Erie or Kentucky as I did to stay current you need blame no one but yourself.

If a conservative comments section had these kind of comments about AIDS or inner city violence or anything else, they would be seen as … well, deplorables. And no, I won’t claim that this reflects every liberal out there or is even a big plurality. Most of the Left Wing is just as appalled by this. But, as Stoller notes, this sentiment does exist. And has gotten worse since these “deplorables” helped elect Trump.

I’m about to put up a post on right-wing talk radio and the corrosive effect I believe it has had on the conservative movement. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the Right Wing is alone in this. There is just is plenty of poison on the Left Wing. And they don’t have Fox News and Rush Limbaugh to blame it on.