To date, roughly 425,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States alone. The CDC counts that another epidemic has killed over 760,000 people since 1999: that is the addiction and opioid crisis. It may feel confusing to mention these things side by side, but I believe they are mirrors of one another. Through the universal experience of COVID-19, those whose lives are untouched by addiction might begin to better understand that reality.
I would guess that when the average person hears “addiction” that heroin, pills, cigarettes, and alcohol all come to mind. But there are many addictions outside of these commonly understood drugs. Sugar, disordered eating, binge spending, gambling — the American Psychiatric Association defines substance addiction as “an intense focus on using substances” at the expense of all other things in their life. This causes a great deal of harm to the individual through poverty, houselessness, institutionalization and death, and such outcomes negatively affect friends, family, and community.
And how do I relate this to COVID-19? Bare with me a moment.
COVID numbers are currently on the rise in the US. Why? Medical organizations attribute it to people’s personal behavior regarding the suggestions to Wear, Wait, and Wash, as well as the policies of governments regarding business openings and gatherings. From Warren Wilson’s campus to the wider Asheville area, we see plenty of people with no masks, no distance, and no washing. Preemptive openings destroyed any progress gained in our brief phase 1. People’s flippancy with regard to travel caused numbers to skyrocket during the month of December to the tune of 65,000 people in the U.S (Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy).
Why, in the face of evidence that businesses, schools, restaurants, venues, churches, and public spaces ought to remain closed, do we open anyway? Why do we go out in spite of the daily death toll averaging 3,300 this past week? Well, because we are all addicts — down to our most sober citizen.
Addicted to what? To consumerism and to capital. American culture does not raise people who can stay comfortably at home with themselves or their families. Self-examination, self-care, and self-love are not values we nurture as proponents and victims of capitalism and white supremacy. Our myth of individualism teaches us to damn our neighbors as we damn ourselves. Like those suffering from substance addiction, onto which our collective consciousness shoves our collective disease, whose illness destroys the carrier and all those connected to them, our mishandling of this world emergency in pursuit of our comfort and profit is killing our neighbors.
As an addict who works with other addicts, I have firsthand experience with addiction and understand that this compulsive behavior is not a choice. COVID-19 sheds light not only on addiction as a root of capitalism, but on our need for healing as a society. How do we heal and empower ourselves to make choices that will save our communities? I would love to hear your answers.
Wishing for all of our health,
Nadine Wolfe is a recovering addict and student at Warren Wilson College who sees addiction as one of the roots of capitalism. They have chosen to remain anonymous so as not to show themselves as a “face” of addiction and recovery; Nadine considers themself to be one voice in the community of addicts both in and out of recovery, and not an expert or last word on the subject.