Overdose crisis affecting South Asian community in Vancouver

Multicultural districts like South Vancouver severely underserved.


By Virender Singh

Dismantling the taboo around drugs for immigrant communities in South Vancouver can help prevent overdoses. 

While Indigenous people continue to be disproportionately affected by the opioid crisis in North America, South Asians have emerged as a highly vulnerable community. A crucial factor is the overwhelming stigma surrounding substance abuse that is deeply embedded in South and Southeast Asian cultures.

There are only six harm reduction sites in Vancouver, and they are all located in and around the Downtown Eastside. This leaves a vacuum in other districts, including South Vancouver. Immigrants comprise more than 60 per cent of this part of the city, with the dominant groups being of East Asian, South and South East Asian descent.

Even though Downtown Eastside consistently reports the highest number of overdose deaths, South Vancouver registered one drug toxicity-related death in every eight overdose calls attended by paramedics in 2022. This is a higher ratio than the Downtown Eastside, where the numbers are one death for every 14 calls.

An unspoken horror haunts the South Asian diaspora in Canada as more lives are lost daily because of the paucity of culturally appropriate services for substance abuse and race based data to make targeted intervention in specific communities possible. 

A report by the Fraser Health Authority in 2020 depicted how the family members or friends of drug users in South Asian communities refused to acknowledge the elephant in the room.


Reasons behind the stigma

While the reasons behind this negligence is multifaceted, one of the factors could be that many South Asian communities wrongly consider dying of a drug overdose to be out of character and pretend it only happens to people in the West.

Many racialized drug users are thus compelled to hide their habits from society or loved ones back home lest they be exposed or bring shame to their families.

International students using substances for recreational purposes or working immigrants coping with pressures from family also have no idea how potent these drugs are. 

There is conclusive evidence then that safe supply and overdose prevention services are in dire need and must be uniformly distributed across the city so we can catch those who slip through the cracks. 


The way forward

Vancouver Coun. Pete Fry told a Voice reporter that mobile overdose prevention vans could possibly counter the service deficit in South Vancouver.

The City of New Westminster recently launched a pilot project called the Peer Assisted Care Team (PACT), which is composed of a mobile crisis assistance team staffed by a mental health worker and a peer support worker to attend calls. 

This is a valuable example of how civic governments can bring sensitivity and a deeper understanding to saving the lives of people with substance abuse issues. 


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