As anticipation builds around the expected relaxation of the lockdown in South Africa and subsequent lifting of bans, experts have warned that this needs to be carefully considered and implemented. It comes after President Cyril Ramaphosa held meetings with the National Coronaviurs Command council and cabinet amid ongoing court cases challenging aspects of the lockdown.
The ban on the sale of tobacco products has been highly contested, with smokers and civil society alike disputing governments claims that the ban in place to ‘prevent COVID-19 fatalities’. It follows international studies that have inconclusively declared smokers at higher risk of death should they contract the virus.
Government has maintained their stance on the ban, despite arguments by both the Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA) and the British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) that illicit sales have spiked astronomically and that smokers should be given the right to choose.
At the weekend, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde said expressed optimism over the provinces coronavirus recovery rate and that cases appear to be dwindling. Winde called on the province to be shifted to Level 2 lockdown which would, among others, allow interprovincial travel and the further reopening of the economy. He cited the stabilization of hospitalisations and fatalities, also stating that the province’s healthcare sector would be able to handle an influx of alcohol sales be lifted.
On Thursday, a group of restaurants led by Cape- Town-based Chef’s Warehouse Restaurants handed the Western Cape high court a 128-page affidavit, detailing why government and Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize should relax the ban. Chef’s Warehouse Restaurants and 10 others have argued that all outlets that have a valid liquor license should be allowed to serve alcohol with their meals and that social distancing protocols of 1.5m need not apply to patrons who voluntarily decide to share a table. The matter has been postponed until August 25 and 26.
Wits School of Governance’s chair of Social Security Systems Administration and Management Studies, Prof. Alex van den Heever, shared the sentiment that lockdown regulations should be relaxed.
“We should be moving down to level 2. The levels themselves are poorly constructed. The restrictions on business don’t have a lot of relevance in any of the levels. We should be moving to a position where we are open,” he said.
Van der Heever took specific issue with limits on interprovincial travel, as he explained that the restrictions are meaningless since he suspects that interprovincial travel has been taking place through the by-passing of roadblocks and that the government imposed limits are not doing much to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
“The alcohol and tobacco prohibition bare absolutely no relation to coronavirus transmission and shouldn’t be in place.”
The focus, he elaborated, should be on existing communities that are already exposed to Covid-19, adding that behavioural changes are “influenced by the need to guard (themselves)”.
“You may not think so, but in some areas, there is a lot of people that make sure they have a mask. The restriction on wedding and funeral gatherings shouldn’t perhaps come down but there is no reason to keep businesses closed,” he said.
“Basically, we have to be in a position to live with the virus. Knowing that its there, knowing that there’s a risk of resurging. Our emphasis needs to be on are proper protocols being maintained, are shopping centres being very careful, are people (using) air conditioners or ensuring ventilation,” he added.
The Southern Africa Alcohol Policy Alliance said it is meanwhile in favour of the view of the World Health Organisation and the South African government; that the ban on alcohol sales is “unsustainable.” Director Maurice Smithers explained that there were restrictions the alliance had been calling for prior to the lockdown, which he says has exposed the reality of how unsafe the country is in relation to alcohol abuses and accidents.
“We are arguing along the lines of having tighter restrictions to control alcohol with the objective of making alcohol a safe to use product in the country so that its safe for the user and the people around the user,” he said.
There have been concerns over a spike in alcohol-related trauma’s and a related spike in road accidents if the ban is lifted. But, according to Smither, the levels of alcohol-related trauma never went as high as it was before then and that the main areas it impacts are on-site consumption and duration for purchase. Initially, level 3 lockdown allowed for alcohol sales between a set amount of time during week-days.
“We believe we can do more; such as reducing the sizes of bottles that people drink, for example instead of 1 litre and 750ml beers which encourage people to drink more because they’re bigger and are cheaper to buy, have them in smaller sizes.”
Other proposals include restricting sale days from four to three, controlling the amount allowed to be bought at any time and. monitoring the alcohol industry to reduce illicit sales.
“Another proposal which has been very successful in Russia is the tracking of alcohol from point of production to point of sale. One has to ask, how is that so much alcohol gets sold at unlicensed outlets? How does it get there? Is the liquor industry complicit? They would say they don’t know but are they complicit in allowing their alcohol to be sold?” he questioned.
A component which Smithers said has long preceded lockdown is the banning of alcohol advertising to ‘de-normalize’ its sale. Smithers, using Russia as an example again, stated that the country is perhaps unfairly known “as a country where everyone drinks and everyone drinks hard” – but yet has managed to reduce its alcohol consumption per capita by 43% in the last 20 years.
“The main aim is to de-normalize alcohol in South Africa, in the same way that tobacco was denormalized in 1999. It begins to change the relationship that people have with alcohol. A ban will never work long term, but it is possible to change the way people drink,” he added.