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Alcohol Lockdown V2.0

Riaan van der Walt

BSc Sport Science, BHons Sport Science

For the few that might be reading this article outside of South Africa, things just got real interesting here…After months of initial lockdown and slow return to economic activity due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, South Africa lifted its ban on the sale of alcohol at the beginning of June. Very few countries took this controversial step to begin with and as you can imagine, it was none too popular! But recently, as of the 12th July, the ban on alcohol sales was re-instated! This lasted a little over a month and was reversed on the 18th August…

The outrage, conspiracy theories and frustration in South Africa right now are tangible! Facebook has become a scary place…so with that in mind, I thought I would weigh in on the science of the matter, both in general and specific to COVID-19. I am keen to do this, because I find very few people, which is to say no-one, well informed on alcohol as a Personal or Societal health issue.

How Bad Is It Really?

Well, there is no way to sugar coat this…Pretty Bad! The history of how and why alcohol is a legal, commonly used drug is a fascinating read, but I’m no historian. What I can tell you is that it would never be given that status if discovered today! Approximately 5.3% of all death globally is directly due to alcohol. In 2018, that was around 3 million people. Take a moment to soak that number in…that’s over 8000 people per day! In contrast as of today, over 8 months into the COVID-19 Pandemic, there have been over 25 million cases and just over 850 000 deaths, which is terrible!…but it’s small fry compared to what alcohol does every year and no-one seems to even know! This is before you consider even one of the other multitude of problems it causes for the living, like disability, crime, abuse, mental health issues etc. etc.

When you look at the stats from a well researched country like the USA, 88 000 people die every year from Alcohol. What is interesting, is that only around 10 000 of those are car accident fatalities. So when I say alcohol kills people, I am referring mainly to Alcohol Poisoning, Liver Disease etc.

What Does Alcohol Have To Do With COVID-19?

You see, if you fill hospitals with car accident victims, domestic abuse victims, alcohol poisoning cases etc, you leave less space and resources for COVID-19 patients. Simple…There is no political argument or personal rights point of view that can combat this simple fact. We just don’t have a lot of hospital resources.

A further issue is that logic suggests that alcohol will spread the virus faster. There is no way to be certain that the re-introduction of alcohol and the sudden rise in COVID-19 cases in SA are cause and effect, but I don’t think it takes much imagination to see that an inhibition lowering substance that increases deviance and law breaking isn’t going to help anyone take mask wearing and social distancing seriously.

What Have We Seen Since Alcohol Was Re-Introduced?

The stats are all over the place depending on which hospital or province you look at, but all predictably rose dramatically. According to SAMRC, the South African Medical Research Council, 40% of trauma cases are normally due to alcohol. Not surprisingly during the first 2 month ban, reductions in car accident admissions, assaults and trauma cases in general, were as amazing as 50-70% lower than usual depending on where and what…but since the first re-introduction, they rose back to their pre-COVID levels and in many cases beyond. This amongst other things was the data that justified the second ban.

Is There A Downside To The Alcohol Ban?

Apart from annoying drinkers, the real impact is on industry and tax revenue. Now let me say that the financial implications of this Pandemic both scare me and are felt by me…and I wish for no-one to lose their job, whether you make alcohol, sell alcohol, promote it, I don’t care, I wish you the best! But we have to face facts here…If this industry does better, more people are sick, more people die and more people are abused. If this industry slows down, the opposite happens. At a time like this, we have to be comfortable with picking the lesser of two evils.

Regarding tax revenue, I think it is a disingenuous argument to make that alcohol should be sold at a time like this due to fear of tax revenue losses. The obvious cost of building, stocking and staffing government funded COVID-19 overflow centres, the healthcare cost of assault victims, car accident victims, loss of life, funeral expenses etc etc etc have to all be ignored to make such an argument and keep a straight face.

In Closing:

Let me make clear that I am not against the legal and responsible use of alcohol under normal circumstances. I drink wine and have even been known to try my hand at Craft Cider making. But to pretend that we don’t all see the case for banning it during pandemics, to pretend that most people do drink responsibly, I worry that we are wasting precious time and resources arguing about a self evident truths.

I wish you the best in health!

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