As coronavirus swept across the nation, life as usual in the U.S. ground to a halt. Schools, restaurants, bars, and hair salons all closed. Businesses across many industries sent employees home in the name of social distancing. Americans from sea to shining sea were told to stay inside and avoid contact with others.
But the liquor stores stayed open. Along with hospitals and grocery stores, they were declared essential – so America drank. What else was there to do? Throughout the pandemic, alcohol and drug use – and deaths – rose to unprecedented heights. And with millions of Americans now being paid not to go to work, the trend only seems likely to continue. Now more than a year since the first lockdown and with no end in sight for the pandemic handouts, it’s time to ask, once again: Which was deadlier – the virus or our nation’s reaction to it?
Several surveys show that drug and alcohol consumption has increased drastically since the pandemic began. The Recovery Village, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Florida, reached out to 1,000 Americans aged 18 and older toward the end of 2020. It found that a little over half (55%) reported an increase in past-month alcohol consumption, with 18% reporting a significant increase. In the states hit the hardest by COVID, like New York and New Jersey, the results were higher: 67% reporting an increase with 25% of those calling their increase significant. Another 36% said they began using or started using more illegal drugs.
Why such an increase? According to the survey, 53% said it was to cope with stress, 32% said it was to cope with mental health issues – and 39% said they were just bored.
A more recent study by UC San Diego and the University of Chicago found that 35% of the 2,200 California residents polled reported a rise in substance abuse in their communities – along with a 19% increase in general violence, 15% more domestic violence against women, and 11% more aimed at children. New York University’s School of Global Public Health found that thanks to COVID-19, drinking rose by 40% in people 40 and younger with anxiety or depression, 30% for those aged 41 to 59, and 20% for those over 60.
Money to Burn
Just for the week of March 21, 2020, the overall U.S. alcohol market grew by 55%, with a 243% growth in online sales. U.S. distillers made a total of $29 billion in 2019 when all the bars and restaurants were open. That rose to $31.2 billion for 2020 – without bars or restaurants buying booze. According to New Futures, a nonprofit that tracks health issues in New Hampshire, the first four months of the pandemic saw a 14% increase in alcohol consumption over the same period in 2019. The state’s liquor commission recorded an increase of $36.5 million over fiscal year 2019.
People weren’t spending money on traveling. They weren’t paying for concerts, sporting events, or movies on the big screen. Those who didn’t lose their incomes – or had them replaced with federally boosted unemployment benefits – found themselves with money in the bank and nothing to spend it on.
Enter the stimulus checks.
According to Chelsea Lemke, a substance abuse disorder services director at Lakes Region Mental Health, patients who struggle with addiction and have trouble budgeting weren’t used to the windfall payments – and many of them spent their pandemic payouts on drugs and alcohol instead of paying household bills.
Humans are social creatures, and when we are forbidden contact with others, it takes a toll. With the increase in drug and alcohol use comes an increase in drug and alcohol deaths. Because 2020 is the most recent year completed, all of the numbers aren’t available yet. However, the CDC did release preliminary figures showing that opioid overdose fatalities rose 55% during the twelve months ending in September 2020. All in all, more than 90,000 Americans died from drug overdoses during that time, which is about 20,000 more than during the same period a year earlier. Another factor affecting the death rate is the increased use of fentanyl, which can kill at an extremely low dose. Thanks to the increase in consumption, this fatal drug made its way to even more Americans.
These statistics run through September of 2020, which is also when Liberty Nation’s Pennel Bird reported the CDC’s admission that only about 6% of recorded COVID-19 deaths since that February were from coronavirus alone. At the time, there were 182,000 COVID deaths reported in the U.S. Rounding up 6% of that gave 11,000 deaths guaranteed to be caused by the actual virus. That’s just over half the overdose deaths likely to be due in large part to the reaction to that virus – and that doesn’t account for the alcohol deaths or suicides, or the uncountable other lives ruined by this year from Hell that didn’t end, but continued on in shambles.
The coronavirus numbers are beginning to improve in many parts of the nation, but folks are still getting paid more to stay home than they made at work. With more money, more time, and less responsibility to hold people back, can we expect drug and alcohol consumption, and all the consequences that follow, to decrease any time soon?
Read more from James Fite.