OPINION | Alcohol ban: Defeating Covid-19 requires a pragmatic approach, not scapegoating

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Liquor for sale on December 03, 2020 in Durbanville, South Africa prior to the announcment of an alcohol ban. (Photo by Gallo Images/Jacques Stander)
Liquor for sale on December 03, 2020 in Durbanville, South Africa prior to the announcment of an alcohol ban. (Photo by Gallo Images/Jacques Stander)

Sibandi Mngadi writes that other less economically disastrous and more sustainable interventions - medical and behavioural - should be considered before applying another alcohol ban or extending the current one beyond 15 January.

In any scientific exploration, one cannot apply more than one intervention in addressing a challenge, and attribute the outcomes of that study only to one intervention, not the others.

That is what is seemingly happening when we view the alcohol sector as it relates to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

On all three occasions that the ban on the formal alcohol sales was implemented, there was also an extended curfew and restriction on gatherings running parallel throughout the period of the ban.

South Africa's biggest hospital, Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, announced on 1 January that it was the first time this past festive season that this Soweto-based hospital did not experience any trauma case on New Year's Eve. The question then becomes: what do you attribute this positive development to? Is it the ban on alcohol sales or is it the curfew and no gatherings that kept people to the confines of their own homes that delivered these results?

Having experienced two bans already, and with rumours flying around that a third ban on alcohol sales was coming, many consumers would have made an effort to secure some stock they needed for New Year's Eve and even the rest of the festive season celebrations.   

Illegal trading

As experienced in the previous two bans on alcohol sales, illegal trading also kicked in immediately after the third ban was announced. These syndicates are now termed "take it or leave it" due to their uncompromising demand of exorbitant prices from consumers.

These illegal traders are complemented by counterfeit producers who refill branded used bottles with illegal alcohol, reseal and sell them as genuine products to unsuspecting consumers. A case in point - two days after the announcement of the current ban - one spirit drinks manufacturer reported to police an armed robbery at the company's production facility in Durban where thousands of caps/closures were taken. This is believed to be linked to counterfeit production process.

READ | Ramaphosa calls for review of alcohol legislation, sets Covid-19 as govt's priority for 2021

The long and short of it is that a significant number of consumers across the country would have had some level of alcohol stock by New Year's Eve - whether secured legally or illegally. Can it be that the curfew, prohibition of gatherings and drinking in public places contributed more to the reduced cases of trauma in our health facilities than the prohibition of formal alcohol sales?

Building up to the 15 January review of the current restrictions as promised by President Cyril Ramaphosa, government has a greater opportunity to explore which of these variables are impacting on the reduction in the cases of trauma in hospitals. Opening up sales for home consumption, while retaining other restrictions currently in place, would be one way of clarifying this question.

Win-win solutions

Opening off-consumption would be one way of saving the one million livelihoods dependent on the alcohol value-chain. It should protect consumers from temptation of purchasing counterfeit alcoholic drinks and limit further losses of alcohol tax revenue to government, which Euromonitor estimates to be in the region of R6.4 billion per annum. 

Acknowledging the lead time between infection, demonstration of symptoms and testing, the number of confirmed cases of infection has been rising exponentially since the ban on the sale of alcohol on 28 December 2020. We urgently need to define what drives these new infections and deal with all the contributing factors.

Critically, we all need to accept that this is a new challenge for all of us; to accept that it is dynamic; to acknowledge that some of the solutions that we were convinced would assist to mitigate the impact may have saddled us with unintended consequences; and that we should always be ready to learn from our own mistakes and the best international practices.

This period demands all of us to be pragmatic and not dogmatic. We must, at all times, seek win-win solutions where the elusive, but achievable balance between lives and livelihoods is struck.

READ | Alcohol bans leave a R45bn SA Breweries shaped hole in the fiscus, court docs claim

As the alcohol industry, we remain committed to working with government and other stakeholders to minimise the impact of the current second wave of Covid-19 cases on the South African population. Even before the current prohibition of sales, we had taken the voluntary decision to not sponsor entertainment events; to deploy patrollers to support SAPS in monitoring alcohol outlet compliance in hotspot areas; and provided PPE to health workers in provinces with the highest number of infections - Eastern Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape.

Declining GDP

In an economy whose GDP declined by -8% in 2020, according to StatsSA, we cannot, as a default response, shut down an industry that contributes R172 billion (3% of GDP) to the SA economy every time we experience a rise in Covid-19 cases.

Not knowing how this pandemic is going to unfold and manifest itself into the future, certainly there should be many other less economically disastrous and more sustainable interventions - medical and behavioural - that need to be considered before applying another ban or extending the current one beyond 15 January.

We can only mitigate and, ultimately, defeat the Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant ramifications if we are pragmatic and practical in our approach. In this scenario, reflex solutions and scapegoating definitely have no place.  

- Sibani Mngadi is Chairperson of the South African Liquor Brand-owners Association (SALBA).

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