Although the alcohol ban was lifted at the beginning of February 2021, with a pending legal battle between the South African Breweries (SAB) and the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, it’s possible that another will be swiftly implemented if the circumstances require.

AUTHOR: Rhys Evans, MD at ALCO-Safe

In order to have the desired outcome of reducing alcohol-related injuries occupying hospital beds required for Covid-19 patients, it is advisable that government continue to enforce curfew regulations while permitting the sale of alcohol under tightly controlled conditions.

Sound reasoning, flawed implementation
Although it is undeniable that our healthcare industry is under severe strain currently, the most recent alcohol ban was not as effective as Government had hoped. When South Africa previously had a total ban on liquor sales, trauma cases in hospitals dropped by as much as 60% according to Government statistics.

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This time, however, people had sufficient warning to stock up both for personal consumption and for sale on the black market. It is clear that a further ban will only cause more harm, given that the government has lost almost R60 billion in tax from the liquor sector during the bans, hitting the economy hard and causing massive job losses.

A renewed blanket ban will only negatively impact the alcohol and hospitality industries and divert much-needed tax money out of the economy into the illicit alcohol trade.

Prohibition is not the way

What can be done to reduce the negative impact of alcohol on our healthcare sector under such challenging circumstances? How can we prevent alcohol-related injuries and fatalities from utilising critical healthcare resources required in the battle against Covid-19?

Regardless of whether there’s a ban in place or not, South Africans continue to consume alcohol purchased on the black market, making it imperative to enforce stringent workplace and road safety rules on alcohol consumption with mandatory breathalyser testing, along with maintaining a strict curfew.

This makes practical sense as it is more likely that accidents will occur when people are out and about or driving on our roads while under the influence.

With a curfew in place, people will drink at home, where they are less likely to get involved in accidents that cause harm to others and themselves, with a potential increase in Gender Based Violence (GBV).

In this way, a curfew is likely to be more effective than a blanket ban on alcohol sales when it comes to keeping alcohol-related traumas and fatalities numbers down.

To prevent alcohol-related injuries from occurring in the workplace, health and safety regulations that apply in high-risk industries like mining and construction will need to be closely adhered to.

This means that businesses must have clear policies on intoxication that are enforced by conducting regular, compulsory alcohol testing before entry is permitted to the workplace.

Knowing that they face a breathalyser test before and after every shift can be enough of a deterrent to prevent workers from consuming alcohol if anti-intoxication policy violations are strictly handled to send a clear message of zero tolerance from a disciplinary perspective.

Outside of the workplace, traffic police will need to increase the frequency of breathalyser roadblocks around times of curfew (currently 23:00 – 04:00) in order to deter road users from drinking and driving.

This, along with compulsory intoxication screening immediately after an accident can be an effective deterrent to drink and drive.

Breathalysers can be 100% safe to use

Without breathalysers to test for the presence of alcohol at roadblocks or in the workplace, enforcing the law will be almost impossible. To alleviate concerns of viral transmission (given that the Covid-19 virus is spread through respiratory droplets), it is important to update breathalyser test protocols to cater for the need of enhanced PPE requirements.

The operator will require additional safety goggles, gloves and a face mask. Physical distancing requirements can be met with housing apparatus for the breathalyser device that is designed to be either wall-mounted outside the workplace, or on a tripod at roadblocks.

The use of disposable paper straws will help protect the test subject in order to minimise the spread of airborne virus particles, assuring safety while enforcing the laws on alcohol consumption.

Legislative overhaul required

South Africa’s alcohol problem is deep rooted and will need to be addressed through measures more effective than a prohibition. Much has been written in the media about how this can be achieved in the long term.

For now, all we can do is enforce current laws more strictly by means of breathalyser testing, maintaining curfews, limiting the sale of alcohol and visible policing until we are in a better position to give this predicament the attention it requires.