'Inexcusable' to fill hospital beds with alcohol-related cases: Zweli Mkhize

Trauma admissions increased by 60% when alcohol sales were allowed

13 July 2020 - 17:53 By Ernest Mabuza, Shonisani Tshikalange and Orrin Singh
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize briefs the media on new level 3 lockdown regulations, including the decision to ban the sale of alcohol.
Health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize briefs the media on new level 3 lockdown regulations, including the decision to ban the sale of alcohol.
Image: Siyabulela Duda / GCIS

It would be “inexcusable” to have hospital beds filled with patients who are casualties of alcohol abuse when this could compromise the lives of those who need treatment for Covid-19.

This is according to health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, who was briefing the media on Monday to elaborate on the stringent measures announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday night.

Among the measures announced on Sunday was the suspension on alcohol sales and the reintroduction of a night-time curfew.

Mkhize said that while some people might have been taken by surprise, there were many people who have welcomed and supported the suspension of the sale and distribution of alcohol.

Mkhize said the consumption of alcohol in SA was high.

“It is estimated that 31% of South Africans 15 years or older are alcohol drinkers. Despite the low proportion of adult South Africans who drink, we are one of the countries who drink the most,” he said.

Mkhize said almost six out of 10 drinkers over the age of 15 were reported to engage in “binge drinking”.

Mkhize said that during level 5 and level 4 of the lockdown — when alcohol sales were not permitted — there was a 60% to 70% reduction in trauma admissions at hospitals. But when alcohol restrictions were lifted during level 3, facilities reported up to 60% increase in trauma emergency centre admissions and up to 200% increase in ICU trauma admissions.

Mkhize said some health workers had indicated the pressure that is caused by admission of patients with trauma during the Covid-19 period.

“It breaks the routine in the hospital management of patients. If somebody comes and is bleeding, you drop the person who is sick and deal with the one who is bleeding,” Mkhize said.

He said there was a need to limit the number of trauma cases in hospitals as a result of alcohol abuse.

“I have seen on the social media a number of health workers who had been frustrated by patients who come in as a result of the trauma. Our people need to understand that we are trying to to balance everything properly.

“This is the reason why we believe during the surge we need to focus on one set of problems and that is the increasing numbers who are coming through and they will be needing urgent attention and we should not find anyone coming in and find beds are blocked by people who could have been saved from accident which brought them to hospital,” Mkhize said.

Mkhize pleaded for the country's understanding and patience as it navigates through a difficult time.

“At the end of the day it will be inexcusable to actually end up with beds blocked by something that is completely preventable and avoidable as consumption of alcohol and end up with the lives of people with a difficult viral infections being compromised,” Mkhize said.

Meanwhile, many South Africans were dismayed at the decision.

Eric Sibanda, manager at the Pheli shisanyama in Atteridgeville, said the business has lost close to R800,000 because of the ban of alcohol sale.

“This is affecting our pocket, including our staff, who are now sitting at home. We don't think this will end any time soon but we were hoping that by September everything will be fine, but it's not [looking] promising. We have 18 staff members and only six are working now, the rest are at home. This number of staff excludes security personnel. Now all we can do is give them some food hampers as some are going hungry,” he said.

Sibande said that although they were not able to sell liquor when the ban was lifted under level 3, this was only for takeaway and not sit-down consumption, and did not allow for purchasing at the weekend.

“When the ban of alcohol was lifted we were hopeful that it will soon be our turn to operate, and we were already preparing on how we will ensure the safety of customers and adhering to regulations,” he said.

Sibande said the business, which serves food and drinks, functions at its peak on weekends.

“The business functions properly on weekends, so when the ban was lifted we haven't been operating on the side of alcohol because people come for the entertainment,” he said.

Dash Masondo, owner of Jeleesh bottle store, also in Atteridgeville, said on Monday that although his business would be hard-hit, Ramaphosa was doing what he saw as fit to save lives.

“My business is being affected because of the no sale of alcohol, but as much as it is affecting my business, I still feel like it is for a better cause. We will see money after ... as long as lives are being saved.

“I do not oppose the president's decision because people are being reckless when they are drunk. As long as the lives of people are being saved then it is better,” he said.

In Queensburgh, south of Durban, resident Prakash Naidoo said he had been left disappointed with Ramaphosa's decision to reinstate the ban.

“I already started making inquiries [about] where I could buy alcohol this morning. Let's be honest, we can still buy alcohol if we want to, it will just be more expensive,” he said.

He said government was worrying itself with trivial things during the pandemic.

“I was in town a short while ago and metro police were everywhere issuing people with parking tickets, yet people are walking around without social distancing or wearing masks. They're are worrying about things that they shouldn't really bother with.”

Construction worker Lucky Ncube said he understood the fears around the virus, but saw no point in banning alcohol sales once again.

“We need beer. Some people can manage but I must have my one beer when I finish work. But you see these young people, they are the ones that did this because they were having parties and gatherings,” he said.

Ncube said that while he believed the virus was real and that it was deadly, he didn't fully understand the reason for banning alcohol while taxis could now operate at 100% capacity.

Single mother, Candice Mertens, sympathised with those who consumed alcohol. A non-drinker herself, Mertens, said government were being unfair in their decisions.

“How is it that during a pandemic you want to close bottle stores but leave schools open? I just don't get it. Just give people a break, first cigarettes and now alcohol again.”

Mertens admitted that her grade two, 7-year-old daughter would repeat the academic school year in 2021 as there was “no way in hell” that her daughter would go back to school this year.

“I don't care what anyone says. It's just not going to happen.”