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Optimism as alcohol has not led to second wave of infections

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As Covid-19 cases have steadily decreased, there is optimism that the unbanning of alcohol has not yet led to a second wave of infections. But, experts warn, SA not out of danger yet.

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Johannesburg – As Covid-19 cases have steadily decreased, there is optimism that the unbanning of alcohol has not yet led to a second wave of infections.

Experts partially attribute this to the nationwide curfew, night clubs still remaining closed and a limit on the sale of alcohol after hours and over the weekend.

But they insist South Africa is not completely out of Covid-19 danger and that alcohol has wreaked havoc on the country’s roads and contributed to a spike in domestic violence cases.

Professor Charles Parry, director of the alcohol, tobacco and other drug research unit at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), who was also part of a team of top local scientists who advised the government on the booze ban, said the situation is better than what was experienced during the initial reintroduction of alcohol in May.

“We didn’t see quite the effect we saw after level 4 of the lockdown after the first ban was lifted where there were immediate alcohol-related deaths and traumas on the very first day it was available.”

Maurice Smithers, the director of the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance in SA (Saapa) said he believed some of the restrictions that were in place, particularly the closure of liquor outlets over the weekend, could be responsible for the decrease in alcohol-related trauma.

“Hospitals will tell you that weekends are the times of greatest pressure on their systems. It’s the time when the ‘unmistakable combined smell of alcohol and blood’ is most noticeable.”

The decline in infections could also be one of the reasons why hospitals have not been inundated with alcohol-related trauma cases.

“Given that the rate of Covid-19 hospitalisations has decreased, it’s been easier for hospital staff to cope with the sudden increase in alcohol-related cases. But one has also to look to the long-term.”

Both Smithers and Parry insisted there is still not enough evidence to suggest the reintroduction of alcohol has been well-managed.

They both noted anecdotal media reports of distressing road fatalities and domestic violence since August 18.

This includes the death of two Tshwane metro police officers in a collision involving a suspected drunk driver in August last moth; a Western Cape mother who recently committed suicide after her two young children perished in a shack fire while she apparently spent the night drinking at a shebeen; and a three-month-old baby flung out of a car this week when an alleged drunk driver hit withthe car she was travelling in with her parents in Durban.

It is believed that about 740 drivers were nabbed for drunk driving in Gauteng after the sale of alcohol was allowed under level 2.

Meanwhile, data compiled by the Gauteng Health Department, as from August 14 to 23 noted that there was an increase of 313 trauma cases with Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital recording the highest number of alcohol-related cases at 309, an increase of 101 from the previous weekend when the ban on alcohol was still in place.

SAMRC’s latest mortality report also revealed this week that the weekly number of non-natural deaths, which include those caused by traffic accidents and murder, had risen sharply since the country moved to level 2, which saw the sale of alcohol resume.

According to the research, there were 1 112 non-natural deaths in the week starting August 19, compared to 827 deaths the week before with alcohol sales resuming on August 18.

These cases, reports and other widespread examples of South Africa’s problematic relationship with alcohol has prompted Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula to call for a zero percent alcohol limit for drivers.

While Parry agreed that much still needed to be done to address alcohol-related traumas in the country but insisted that a zero alcohol limit for drivers might not be the answer.

“I think it should be 0.02 with a criminal record only for those who are over 0.05 blood alcohol limit.”

Parry said he believes measures such as adequate enforcement of drunk driving and particularly dealing with the binge drinking culture needs to be addressed immediately.

“At least 50% are probably heavy drinkers in South Africa.” “The World Health Organisation estimates 31% of South Africans drink alcohol but I think it’s around 35% so about 17% are heavy drinkers.”

Smithers adds the abuse of alcohol is wreaking havoc on the healthcare system and that addressing this issue could save scores of lives in the long-term.

“It’s in the interests of the public health sector and society as a whole for there to be a permanent reduction in alcohol-related harm which can be achieved through more effective alcohol legislation.”

He also warned that while alcohol consumption appears to not be currently a driving force in an uptake in Covid-19 cases, this could still be a reality.

“Two days after the lifting of the second ban, there was a video circulating of a crowd of over 50 people at an alcohol outlet in a covered parking area, few were wearing masks, those that were did not have them covering their faces, and there was no distancing.

“It was the perfect place for the virus to spread and this was a situation where the public were ignoring the basic precautions and the alcohol outlet was taking no responsibility for making sure that they were observed.”

The Saturday Star