South Africa coronavirus lockdown: Alcohol ban reveals deadly drinking habits

On one side: drinkers who say their rights are being impinged on and bottle shop owners and liquor companies that are going broke. On the other: a public health system that is unburdened by thousands of monthly hospitalizations resulting from accidents and violence attributed to drunkenness.

More than 5,000 fewer admissions to trauma units per week can be attributed to the alcohol ban, according to Charles Parry, director of alcohol research at the South African Medical Research Council. The council’s data also shows a decrease in excess deaths in South Africa, suggesting that the lockdown, with its alcohol ban and decrease in vehicle use, may have saved the lives of more South Africans than the 186 that the coronavirus is confirmed to have killed so far.

“Instead of patching people up with stabbing wounds, nurses can focus on training how to handle covid cases,” Parry said, referencing covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. “Based on our model, at least 15 people who would have otherwise died from alcohol-related traumas are being saved every single day.”

Many countries, including the United States, are seeing a spike in excess deaths that outpaces even the confirmed number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus.

South Africa’s top government officials are casting the ban, which they tout as a major success, as not only a coronavirus-related measure, but also a social experiment that is providing feedback on how the country’s health-care system functions.

“With coronavirus, we have an opportunity to examine issues that have been vexing us in this country for a very, very long time,” said Lindiwe Zulu, South Africa’s social development minister. “Yes, the ban is drastic, but is this not a time for drastic measures?”

South Africans drink, get into car crashes and commit acts of domestic abuse at levels well above the populations of most other countries. Sixty percent of drinking-age residents consider themselves binge drinkers, according to a 2016 government report, and the country ranked 159 out of 175 surveyed for road deaths by the World Health Organization in 2018.

South Africa’s lockdown began March 27, and the country banned the sale of cigarettes and cooked food. When the government relaxed the lockdown slightly in late April, many hoped these bans would be lifted. But the government has maintained that the benefit to the health system, as well as the added effect of discouraging social gatherings, merits the continued restrictions on booze.

Big and small alcohol businesses alike are suffering. South African Breweries, one of the biggest brewers in the world, said Thursday that it may have to destroy 400 million bottles of beer because it can neither sell nor transport them and its warehouses are nearing maximum capacity. Around 2,000 jobs might be cut if the government doesn’t intervene, the Anheuser-Busch InBev subsidiary said.

“We live in a society that encourages social drinking — it’s rare people go buy alcohol and go home,” said Katlego Sepeng, who owns a now-closed bottle shop outside of Pretoria. “But I am not sure if I will be able to recover from the impact.”

Some critics of the ban question whether alcohol is really responsible for as much violence and as many deaths as health officials claim.

“I’m like, no, the real reason for those decline in numbers is due to the fact there are less people on the roads,” said Motheo Landane, 31, an investment banker in Johannesburg. He misses the nights when he could go out with friends to clubs. He said he’d support a ban on clubs and bars but a blanket ban on alcohol went too far.

Legal scholars have also questioned whether the ban sets a tricky precedent of limiting individual rights for the greater good in a country that already is one of the most unequal in the world. Thuli Madonsela, a professor of law and former public protector of South Africa, said the government has not argued effectively as to why the entire country must suffer through the ban when the coronavirus outbreak has only affected pockets of it.

“They are firing as many bullets as possible, but in doing so, they are killing off certain rights that people have,” she said. “It is also unfair. The only people who are deprived of alcohol are the poor — the rich, we have our alcohol. As for health system benefits, we may be seeing them in the short term, but we have made people drop a habit, however harmful, very suddenly. There will be an ensuing mental health crisis.”

Those who can’t wait for the ban to be lifted have turned to the country’s more than 100,000 unlicensed liquor and cigarette sellers. Business, for them, is roaring.

“It is truly shocking how much money people are willing to part with for alcohol,” said a seller named Peter, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used to discuss his work. He sells bottles of alcohol at three times their sticker price. “Perhaps people have deep-rooted issues, because personally I am not sure if I’d want to spend this much on alcohol. But I am not complaining. I am making so much money.”

The ban’s effects on domestic abuse are harder to know. The ministry of social development has noted an uptick in reported cases, pointing to a possible impact of abusers having to spend more time at home. But Zulu, the social development minister, said fewer cases were severe than before.

One abuse victim, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she thanks God for the ban because it has helped her and her mother speak with her violent father.

“He is less violent, less aggressive, more patient, and I feel like I am learning more about him,” she said. “This man has deep-rooted issues that he is now forced to deal with, which is good. I just wish post-ban he can go and seek help and actually face his demons.”

Zulu said she personally expects the ban to be lifted when the lockdown is further relaxed but said the government would be looking closely at how widespread its positive impacts have been.

“We will look at what we did that made our citizens better citizens,” she said. “People have to be able to make their own choices, yes, but we are a brutalized community. The impact of alcohol in our social life was getting out of hand. I cannot say the ban will stand, but it is of interest to us to see how society can be improved.”

Bearak reported from Nairobi.

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