South Africa should review alcohol ban: experts

The alcohol ban and evening curfew have been successful in relieving stress on the country’s hospitals, but it is now time to review these measures, say medical experts.

Dr Glenda Gray, SA Medical Research Council president and member of the Covid-19 ministerial advisory committee, told BusinessDay TV that the government needs to be more flexible around the issue of an alcohol ban, and evening curfew.

“We need to be nimble. We have seen the impact that the curfew and the alcohol ban has done and we don’t need to be slow in our response to address these measures.

“My recommendation to government is to be nimble, is to look at the advice and look at the impact. We have achieved impact by having a curfew and prohibition on alcohol. We have achieved the lives and now we need to look at livelihoods.

“We always looked at this as an interim or a temporary ban, and the government must respond to the data,” Gray said.

On 12 July, president Ramaphosa imposed a second ban on alcohol sales, as a result of a spike in alcohol related trauma incidents.

“In the midst of our national effort to fight against this virus there are a number of people who have taken to organising parties, who have drinking sprees, and some who walk around in crowded spaces without masks,” he said.

“As we head towards the peak of infections, it is vital that we do not burden our clinics and hospitals with alcohol-related injuries that could have been avoided. This is a fight to save every life, and we need to save every bed.

“There is now clear evidence that the resumption of alcohol sales has resulted in substantial pressure being put on hospitals, including trauma and ICU units, due to motor vehicle accidents, violence and related trauma. Most of these and other trauma injuries occur at night,” the president said.

Professor Charles Parry of the SA Medical Research Council told BusinessDay TV that the government’s focus now should be on the regulations in place when the ban on alcohol is lifted.

This could include restrictions on the amount of alcohol that can be sold as well as restrictions on when it can be bought, he said.

“We now need to start looking at planning for the lifting of the ban.”

President Ramaphosa said in a statement on Sunday (02 August), that in every province, hospitals have been reorganised and readied to manage an influx of patients.

Field hospitals have been constructed across the country, including in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay and Pietermaritzburg.

“In certain cases, these efforts were not enough. Several public hospitals in the Eastern Cape were overwhelmed as infections rose in the province, and a specialist team has been deployed to address this challenge.

“In other provinces hard-hit by the epidemic, including the Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the health system has so far had sufficient capacity to cope with the number of admissions,” he said.

The president said that after a rapid rise in Covid-19 infections over the last two months, the daily increase in infections appears to be stabilising, particularly in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Eastern Cape.

Numbers have come down from a peak of around 15,000 daily reported infections in mid-July, to 8,366 casualties reported on Sunday.

“While it may be too soon to draw firm conclusions, this suggests that the prevention measures that South Africans have implemented are having an effect,” said president Cyril Ramaphosa in a statement on Saturday on progress in the national coronavirus response.

Data for Gauteng at the end of July, showed 5,476 Covid-19 patients are currently in hospital in the province, while there are 9,576 hospitals beds available for Covid-19 patients in both public and private hospitals. Similarly, hospital beds have opened up in the Western Cape where infections have plateaued, and recoveries have increased.

Alternatives

In a presentation given to parliament before the ban was instituted in July, Parry outlined some of the possible alternatives as well as further restrictions to the full-blown ban on alcohol sales.

He said that this could include limiting the availability of alcohol, reducing the drunk driving limit, and making changes to advertising.

However, he pointed out that there are also problems with these proposed restrictions.

“In contrast to a ban on alcohol sales, a combination of strategies is more challenging to implement; and is likely to have a lesser impact even if used in combination,” he said.

Parry added that these restrictions should have been introduced at the beginning of level 3, and not when there is a shortage of hospital beds.

“Strategically, we did push with the MAC that it might be useful to consider taking such an approach to prevent push-back from the public and the liquor industry and associated businesses.

“It might also make it easier to defend legal challenges because then the government could say they initiated less intrusive strategies first.”

While the ban on alcohol will not last forever, Parry said that the country needs to be ready so as not to see the return of trauma cases.

This should include additional taxes on beer and spirits, as well as the introduction of further long-term restrictions such as increasing the legal drinking age to 19.

He said that the government could also look at some of the above alternatives such as the implementation of stricter drunk driving rules.


Read: Dlamini-Zuma on lifting South Africa’s alcohol ban for wine: report

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South Africa should review alcohol ban: experts