Researchers can’t finger alcohol as the cause of lockdown crime drop
The upside of the seven-week long Covid-19 lockdown is that trauma wards are less busy and the police are collecting fewer bodies.
But the question is: Is crime down because of the lockdown or the alcohol ban?
South Africa is not alone, across the world countries have had similar decreases in violent crime rates.
St Louis, Missouri, a city that is considered violent by US standards, had 194 murders last year.
This year it was standing at 45.
South Africa, this time last year, had already clocked up 1500 murders compared to just 432 this year.
The percentage drop in the murder rate over the last 12 months for St Louis and SA is about the same.
But there is one big difference: St Louis didn’t ban alcohol during their lockdown period.
“This suggests an impact of lockdown, that needs to be separated from an alcohol ban,” said Jean Redpath, a researcher at the African Criminal Justice Reform, Dullah Omar Institute, in the University of the Western Cape.
She was speaking this week at a webinar hosted by the Institute of Security Studies titled “Alcohol and South Africa’s Drop in Crime”.
Redpath explained that there were a number of factors relating to the lockdown that might have influenced this decrease in crime.
One is the ongoing curfew, that is preventing people from interacting at night. Victims of crime might also during this period be reluctant or find it hard to go to a police station to report an incident.
“Public transport during the beginning of the lockdown was not widely available for people who live far away from the police stations.
“People might fear contracting the virus if they go to a police station and by reporting a crime, you may have to admit to you were breaking lockdown rules,” explained Redpath.
Reports of police and army brutality during the lockdown might also be a deterrent, added Redpath.
Trauma admissions to hospitals across the country have dropped by two thirds since the beginning of lockdown. In New Zealand, another country that did not ban alcohol, saw a 45% reduction in trauma admissions.
Moosa Parak, trauma doctor at the Mitchells Plain District Hospital in Cape Town, believes the reduction in patients admitted during lockdown had to do with the alcohol ban.
“We had a discussion during one of our ward rounds a few days ago, on how the emergency centre had changed over the last several weeks. Our assumption was that the shutting down of alcohol sales has had a significant drop in the number of presentations of violent crime in our emergency centres,” said Moosa.
“The shocking thing for us clinicians is that we see this violent crime on a daily basis and when a patient is brought in and dies, 20 to 30 minutes afterwards, we have forgotten that we have lost the life of a human being.”
However, there are signs that already criminals are regrouping even under lockdown.
The Minister of Police Bheki Cele noted a recent increase in crime.
Vehicle tracking company Tracker reported this week a six fold increase in stolen vehicle recoveries, compared to the start of lockdown.
However, this was still 35% lower than before lockdown.
It is unlikely though that car hijackings are influenced by the availability of alcohol.
Ultimately solving the puzzle over whether keeping people at home or the absence of alcohol is the driver in crime reduction, comes down to better data.
Parak is involved in an initiative in the West Cape where patient data is being digitised and that in turn would assist researchers.
“The quality data that will come out of these systems will basically be an investment for decision makers to make adequate decisions to change our systems and society,” he said.