The idea of banning the formal sale of alcohol again last month emerged from provinces that were under pressure to demonstrate their health system preparedness for a peak in the Covid-19 outbreak.
The concern was that the surge in coronavirus cases would lead to a much higher demand for hospitalisation than the number of beds available in the province.
A unilateral decision was taken to ban alcohol without consultation nor consideration of other measures that could have been taken to strengthen the health response, particularly in Gauteng where Covid-19 interventions have since been marred by allegations of corruption, leading to the suspension of the health MEC.
Six days before that Sunday night announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa to ban alcohol sales and transportation of alcohol with immediate effect, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) was asked by the national Department of Health to conduct a study on the implications of the decision.
SAMRC director of Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Research Unit, Professor Charles Parry told SAfm that the brief to the research team was, “What will happen if there was a ban of alcohol sales in level 3?”
The SAMRC research modelling established that an eight-week ban would free up to 15 000 beds across the country. However, there were at least three flaws in the research that were picked up by the global research institute Kantar as well as the research teams at the universities of KwaZulu-Natal and Wits.
First, the study used 1999 data on hospital capacity. This data excluded major hospitals built or expanded over the past 20 years, including Chief Albert Luthuli in Durban, Mthatha, and Mitchell’s Plain Hospital in Cape Town. Second, since patients are not screened for blood alcohol content at admission, the research applies a 50% estimate of all cases being alcohol-related without referencing the basis of the estimate. Finally, the research does not measure the impact of other interventions applied together with the alcohol ban, such as a curfew or stay-at-home rules implemented during lockdown levels 5 and 4. This places a disproportionate blame on alcohol misuse as the sole contributor to the health system’s historical difficulties.
Despite the research model requiring eight weeks to achieve its intended outcome, at less than three weeks of the second ban, Parry (and SAMRC president Dr Glenda Gray) were already advising the government to consider lifting the alcohol ban.
So, the question is, was the second ban of alcohol sales an ill-advised decision? From a health system perspective, the anticipated severe pressure on hospital beds seems not to be materialising immediately.
From an economic perspective, the impact of the ban is severe. Two major global beer producers this week announced a suspension of a total of R11 billion worth of capital investments to South Africa.
This week’s statement by the World Health Organization urging countries not to re-impose national lockdowns, as “the price is too high” further complicates the situation for our government that is struggling to balance saving lives and livelihoods.
It is probably time for South Africa to revert to one of its primary strengths as a nation, the ability to consult to find sustainable solutions to the major problem facing us. The unilateral decision to ban alcohol was hasty, insensitive, and is a setback to the country’s ability to recover economically.
* Mngadi is spokesperson for the alcohol industry and corporate affairs director at Diageo South Africa.