Image Credit: Discott
Coronavirus halted alcohol fuelled social events. While many of these events across the globe adapt and occur remotely, the South African government has instead decided to opt for prohibition style policies in their nation. A complete ban on the consumption and sale of alcohol commenced from 27 March, only to be relaxed on 1 June. Whilst supermarkets are now allowed to sell alcohol between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Thursday, images of policemen forcing homeless people to pour away their beer cans are a shocking reminder of the harshness of prohibition.
South Africa’s lockdown was one of the world’s strictest. Curfews, alcohol prohibition and a ban on dog walks were imposed on the nation. Many have viewed the strict measures as an echo of South Africa’s undemocratic past. The difference being that both black and white people have had their freedoms curtailed under this pandemic. Some have even hypothesised that the harsh lockdown will help unify the nation which was once divided by apartheid. This is based on the premise that sharing a difficult situation creates a sense of togetherness within the country.
Furthering racial cohesion was not the prime intention of the ban. Instead, the government claimed it would reduce police and hospital workload, allowing services to better tackle the pandemic. Alcohol is known to be a harmful contributor to domestic violence, crime and dangerous driving. With its prohibition, the number of emergency hospital admissions were set to fall by 40% alongside a dramatic reduction in crime however, with The Guardian reporting that the ban has given a “massive boost” to gang crime, it appears this may have been a stark miscalculation.
South Africa has not been the only state to implement a ban; Greenland and Zimbabwe took the same approach. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of prohibition is still questionable. While South Africa’s crime rate and non-Covid hospital admission rates have dropped, this is not necessarily a direct result of the alcohol ban. These rates have fallen on a global scale meaning that this reduction is more likely to result from fewer people being in public to commit crime or to hurt themselves. Furthering this, many people who need hospital treatment have avoided going due to the fear of contracting Covid-19 in hospital.
One area where prohibition seems to have been more useful, is in reducing domestic violence. Lockdown has been cruellest for those in abusive relationships. A surge in calls to helplines was both expected and experienced in the UK. In South Africa however, the police say that domestic abuse crimes are down by 70% compared to the same period last year. Whilst this suggests that the alcohol ban might have cooled tensions in the household, the fact that many South Africans continued to drink alcohol illegally makes the statistic questionable. The reduction in domestic abuse crime may instead be as a result of an underreporting of crime.
Alcohol suppresses the release of excitatory neurotransmitters, meanwhile increasing the release of inhibitory neurotransmitters. This effectively means the brain becomes less active, causing drinkers to feel distanced from reality. Drinking alcohol also stimulates a release of dopamine in the brain which causes the drinker to feel happy.
Nevertheless, the release of dopamine is dangerous because it causes the drinker to crave more alcohol. Much like the stockpiling of toilet-rolls, there seems to be a worrying hoarding mentality towards alcohol. In the UK, sales were up by 22% in March and yet Alcohol Change UK did a study revealing that only a fifth of people were drinking more heavily since lockdown.
The psychological impact of alcohol dependence is severe, and yet this is without even mentioning the multiplicity of alcohol induced health issues including liver cirrhosis and high blood pressure. Drinking alcohol can actually weaken your immune system, and put you at a greater risk when fighting Covid-19.
Monitoring the consumption of alcohol in lockdown is a double-edged sword. A complete ban produces crime and public frustration, meanwhile a complete acceptance risks alcohol dependence. Perhaps the solution should be an increased awareness of one’s alcohol intake, and a recognition that alcohol is not a solution to anxiety.