The invisible, the vulnerable, the forgotten in our society have been given a voice through the current debates on whether maintaining the current ban, which prohibits the selling of alcohol and tobacco during the COVID-19 lockdown, should be enforced. The current ban is being challenged by the Gauteng Liquor Forum who represent 20 000 township shebeens and taverns. Regardless of your personal standpoint on the argument, it has been valuable in having these counter arguments come to the forefront as invested stakeholders such as health professionals, politicians, government departments, academics, alcohol and tobacco companies are drawing attention (even as a by-product) to the addiction and mental health crisis in SA.
Is prohibiting the selling of alcohol and tobacco the answer to reducing the negative effects of the vulnerabilities we are experiencing in SA?
- There are certainly pros and cons to both counter arguments (maintaining or lifting of the ban) but clearly with a lack of available and reliable information, there isn’t a concrete answer here. While the lockdown and bans in place may make us acutely aware of the inequalities, vulnerabilities and stressors in society – these have been present prior to the lockdown and will remain long afterwards, unless serious action is taken. And neither argument addresses or solves alcohol and substance abuse, addiction and the mental health crisis SA finds itself in.
- Many of us struggle to separate the purpose of the COVID-19 restrictions from the vulnerabilities we are seeing in society. While the COVID-19 restrictions are to reduce societal spread and save lives, many cannot ignore the ripple effects of this decision. This viewpoint has been exacerbated by society’s failure to effectively manage addiction (and the related vulnerabilities) prior to COVID-19. What is being highlighted is that addiction and mental health challenges are a far greater crisis then perhaps we have acknowledged and that there has been a lack of mental health resources to address the needs of the most vulnerable.
- The lack of research, accessible resources, mental health sites, reliable stats and lack of funding to fully understand the scope and scale of addiction and mental health challenges in SA has contributed to the lack of proactive, sustainable solutions to address the crisis. SA has not done nearly enough to mitigate, protect and sustainably assist those who most need it.
- Which is why, regardless of the President’s decision made regarding the ban, SA needs to think carefully about what needs to be done to address this crisis. With registered counsellors and social workers, among others, trained and equipped to assist the most vulnerable in the community – I am more interested to see whether the President will be putting tangible plans in place to create sustainable, holistic, short and long-term solutions to address the current and ever-increasing addiction and mental health crisis.
Should the alcohol and tobacco ban be enforced?
- Prevent an increase in domestic violence due to substance abuse
When the government published the regulations on the ban, reference was made to the possibility of an increase in domestic violence. The inevitable tension of people living in confined spaces and close proximity to each other and the added complexity of alcohol and substance abuse to this situation may exacerbate the potential for violence. It is, of course, very difficult to know with any certainty whether the ban will help limit domestic violence or whether it might instead lead to a greater number of incidents.
- Economic and trade fairness
Parliament Portfolio Committee on Health, the EFF, the Minister of Police and the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance of South Africa (SAAPA SA) have come in support of the President’s ban and argue for the ban to be maintained during the lockdown period. They argue that the ban needs to be maintained due to economic fairness for other small businesses which cannot operate, increase in alcohol related harm putting additional pressure on the healthcare system during this time, the increase of COVID-19 susceptibility due to substances reducing the immune system and a compelling argument regarding how liquor use is associated with up to 60% of domestic violence cases.
Should the alcohol and tobacco ban be removed?
- Stricter trade conditions of alcohol and tobacco
The reality is the sole purpose of the lockdown restrictions and current bans is to curb the COVID-19 spread. In other words, could we continue to partially sell alcohol & tobacco under strict conditions and still curtail COVID-19? The South African Liquor Brandowners Association (Salba), South African arm of British American Tobacco (BAT), the Gauteng Liquor Forum, South African Drug Policy Initiative (SADPI), Tax Justice South Africa and academics have come in support of the removal of the current ban. Their reasoning is summarized by Smithers in “economic hardship, crime, domestic violence, looting of liquor outlets, illegal selling and buying of alcohol, human rights violations, the suffering of people with alcohol addictions.”
- Majority do not suffer substance abuse in South Africa
There are arguments presented that government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be based on the challenges faced by a minority of people with addiction and mental health challenges. Rather, governments decisions must be made in the best interests of the majority of the country. The removal of the ban, is in the best interest of the majority of people, even if this decision could negatively affect the minority of the population. In fact, the South African Drug Policy Initiative (SADPI) has highlighted that the removal of the ban may actually be in the best interest of the vulnerable as they will suffer mentally and physically, some with fatal outcomes due to the removal of the substances they need.
Written by: Lauren Martin Head of Teaching and Learning (Pretoria Campus)