Did Chinese-manufactured fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, kill Michael Kenneth Williams, the man who played ‘Omar’ in The Wire? Within minutes of his death being announced yesterday, speculation was circulating on Twitter. New York Police Department sources have told the Daily Mail they suspect fentanyl was involved.
The world only seems to notice when a celebrity overdoses. In 2016, Prince’s death from a cocktail of fentanyl and other substances was an important milestone in awakening America to the horrific opioid drug epidemic that had crept up on the country since the 1990s.
But lots of non-famous people are dying all the time because of fentanyl from China, which has flooded the US criminal scene in recent years.
There is more than a little irony in the fact that the US is now on the receiving end of Chinese exports of synthetic opioids. In the first half of the 19th century, America sat on Great Britain’s coattails to become a major participant in the export of drugs to China. Whereas British opium was grown in Bengal and exported from Calcutta, America smuggled its opium to China from Turkey where US traders commanded a virtual monopoly.
Perhaps the greater irony is that it is Wuhan, the city whose name is synonymous with the origins of Covid-19, that is one of the major manufacturers of the opioids feeding the drug-death crisis that has ravaged the US for the last two decades.
Since 1999, the US Centre for National Health Statistics has calculated that opioid deaths in America have risen from 8,000 per annum in 1999 to 49,860 in 2019; in aggregate, over this period the opioid pandemic in the US alone has cost more than 500,000 lives. This compares with 630,000 deaths from Covid over the last 18 months.