COVID-19 Response May Lead to Massive Drug Pandemic

            The US response to COVID-19 may lead to a massive drug pandemic. The correlation between drug addiction and unemployment provides evidence that the US will have an increasing drug issue as a result of the COVID-19 response. Many state governors have called for the closing of all “nonessential” businesses, causing mass unemployment. As stated by CNBS, an estimated 47 million Americans could lose their jobs to the economic shutdown causing a substantial increase in stress that is detrimental to the well-being of individuals. This stress will not only result in millions of deaths, but also a significant increase in substance use.  This article bases much of its conclusions on academic research done by Dieter Henkel in their research paper, “Unemployment and Substance Use: A Review of the Literature (1990-2010)”, published in Current Drug Abuse Reviews (2011) and some quotes are utilized throughout.

            The fear alone of losing one’s job will increase substance use. The public, already scared to death of Coronavirus, is closely following the latest news on Coronavirus, including the newest Corona mitigation measures imposed by the federal and state governments. As the public hears of an increase in measures to prevent COVID-19 including the closure of more businesses, they will expect the same or similar measures to soon be applied to them. As stated before, the business shutdown will cause about 47 million in mass unemployment.  With this comes the concern of job loss for those who work in jobs that have commonly been deemed “unessential” by the government. This anticipation or “fear of job loss can increase the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and [improper use of] prescription drugs” (Henkel) by an individual. Thus, even before the US is facing the full effects of a mass unemployment problem, a drug pandemic problem may already be at hand.

            In part, as a speculation, the increased substance use occurring even before the loss of an individual’s job may be due to merely the conceptualization and early distress over the prospect of losing one’s job. It has already been shown that “unemployment increases substance use because of the increased distress associated with losing one’s job” (Henkel). With the addition that “anticipations of sensory effects not only precede voluntary movements but also determine them.” , from Roberto Poli Department of Sociology & Social Research, University of Trento, Italy; Fellow, World Academy of Art & Science, it would make sense that the distress associated with unemployment would be felt and make an impact preemptively to actual job loss. Of course, the actual loss of employment has a stronger correlation with substance use than just fearing unemployment, but it needed to be pointed out that both the mandated business shutdowns and fear of further shutdowns contribute to the impending drug pandemic.

            While it is true that “unemployment increases substance use because of the increased distress associated with losing one’s job,” (Henkel) there is another factor at odds with this. Due to less available income and no more work-strains, “unemployment can actually decrease the consumption of substances” (Henkel). Thus, the question is left, which unemployment result is greater? Will substance use increase or decrease with unemployment? Luckily, this question can and is answered by research. The net effect of unemployment is an increased probability “of developing an alcohol-related disorder (abuse/dependence according to DSM-III) six-fold” (Henkel). In addition, alcohol and illegal drug use increases among young adults by “1.4 to 4.1 times” (Henkel) in comparison to their employed peers after being unemployed over six months. It is important to note that this data may even be an understatement of the effects of unemployment on substance use. Much of the data collected did not include why or how one became unemployed, and it has been shown through research by Susan L. Ettner, a researcher investigating the correlation between unemployment and alcohol use, that those who are voluntarily unemployed underreport the negative effects of unemployment. These findings make clear that substance use actually increases as a result of unemployment, outweighing the countervailing effects of lack of income and no work strain. What does this mean for America with the upcoming drastic rise in unemployment created by authoritarian closure of businesses?

            Even now, as unemployment is rising, given the fact that some people begin substance use out of fear of impending job loss, addiction will be on the rise. The stress resulting from job loss will be worse in combination with stress from the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic blown out of proportion.  For instance, the Washington Post claims the Whitehouse has predicted 240,000 deaths in the US under assumptions of substantial social distancing measures being implemented, but there have only been 26,047 deaths and the daily deaths are decreasing.  Keep in mind that there are on average between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths per year from the flu as reported by CDC estimates. The unemployed will not be able to manage this stress. They will be overcome with despair and with that will experience an increased susceptibility to drugs. On top of that, the longer the economy stays down, the longer people will be unemployed, and that subsequently results in “a significantly higher risk of problematic substance use” (Henkel). The addiction rate will skyrocket, and if the unemployment rate reaches as high as CNBC’s prediction of 32%, there could be a large portion of US citizens hooked on drugs. This can be expected based on the academic research, (with high confidence around the expected outcomes).   Note that the US may be less prepared to handle a large drug crisis after coronavirus, especially after crippling the economy and mass unemployment that has never been experienced in the post-modern era. Furthermore, the treatment of drug addiction for the unemployed is significantly more difficult and less effective in comparison to those employed.

            It is clear in research taking multiple variables into account that paid employment is exceedingly important in recovering and maintaining recovery from addiction. Without a paying job, recovery is less likely for an individual. Those who are unemployed and remain so after treatment are “2-3 times more likely to relapse than the employed” (Henkel) and will have a more severe relapse. The exact reason for such is unknown, but it is clear that unemployment is a big disadvantage for addiction recovery. Leading to a bigger issue, if the US faces mass unemployment, how will the significant addiction increase be handled? The US may be facing a massive drug pandemic if we keep up with our current COVID-19 response of economic shutdown.

[1] Dieter Henkel, “ Unemployment and Substance Use: A Review of the Literature (1990-2010)”, Current Drug Abuse Reviews (2011) 4: 4. 



[4] Ettner SL. Measuring the human costs of a weak economy: does unemployment lead to alcohol abuse? Soc Sci Med 1997; 44: 25160

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