By Reabetswe Khutsoane
This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 4 of VARSITY News.
The announcement of the national lockdown included a ban on the sale and distribution of alcohol for the duration of what was initially a 21-day period, under the regulations of the Disaster Management Act of 2002. This is a decision that has affected consumers, producers and the economy at large.
The WHO European Regional Office released a fact sheet regarding Covid-19 and alcohol. In this, alcohol is said to weaken the immune system and reduce the ability to fight the Covid-19 virus. The factsheet acknowledges alcohol’s effect on one’s judgment and behaviour, including its close association with violence, particularly, gender-based violence (GBV).
This is in line with Police Minister Bheki Cele’s hardline stance on the alcohol ban. Cele has vowed to come down hard on illegal liquor sales and liquor looting and is quoted as saying, “Sober up – there are serious matters here”. This approach has been seemingly justified in the fact that the alcohol ban has played a significant role in the reduction of crime and clearing hospital beds that have become invaluable in the face of an ongoing health crisis. An example of this is the reduction in the number of accidents and deaths on the road during the lockdown. There were significantly less vehicles on the road, and this on its own reduces the risk of accidents, with the alcohol ban seen to be the reason behind this decline. In terms of GBV, the alcohol ban has done little to reduce these crimes, with the South African Police Service reporting to have received over 87 000 GBV complaints within the first seven days of the lockdown.
In WHO data released in 2018, South Africa was listed as having the world’s fifth highest pure alcohol consumption rate. Of the total population of drinkers in the country, the majority are classified as heavy or binge drinkers. This was somewhat exhibited in the long queues outside liquor stores, the day before the lockdown as South Africans tried to stock up for the duration of the lockdown.
This liquor ban yields a threat to health as well. The sudden halt of the consumption of alcohol can cause severe withdrawal issues in drinkers. Some of these include nausea, sweat, tremors, depression, and anxiety. Some of these mental effects cannot be treated under lockdown conditions as mental healthcare was not deemed an essential service. The more extreme symptoms include delirium and grand mal seizures.
The lockdown and response to Covid-19 has put the fiscus under pressure to provide for those without an income, as well as increased claims from the UIF. The Gauteng Liquor Forum has threatened court action against the government on behalf of their retailers, who now have no source of income. However, they aren’t the only ones losing income. SARS has reportedly under-recovered R1.3bn on alcohol sales.
The alcohol ban has a significant socio-economic impact on the country and is currently a topic of dispute and ire amidst many South Africans. The government has maintained the ban on alcohol through the 35-day lockdown and continues to do so under Level 4 regulations. With no discernible end to the ban, the health risks posed to those suffering from withdrawal symptoms without medical assistance, as well as the significant financial losses the ban bears, are palpable issues. The liquor industry is continually lobbying for the limited delivery of alcohol, to allow retailers to gain income and government to regain tax revenue that is currently being lost.