Mr President, don’t leave us and our 250,000 livelihoods behind

26 July 2020 - 10:39 By ZOLEKA LISA
Alcohol should not be made a sole scapegoat for the increase in trauma cases at hospitals, writes the author. Stock image.
Alcohol should not be made a sole scapegoat for the increase in trauma cases at hospitals, writes the author. Stock image.
Image: 123RF\bhofack2

When the country went into the initial hard lockdown in March, the country stood together in awe of how our government, under the leadership of President Cyril Ramaphosa, navigated unchartered and tough waters when our nation was confronted by the novel coronavirus — an invisible enemy.

At the time, our president inspired a sense of patriotism to all South Africans and garnered the support of the country at large, especially from business owners, when he announced the measures which were aimed at preserving livelihoods after having consulted all sectors of the economy.

What followed was a long 35 days of hard, level 5 lockdown in SA. This was an incredibly dark time for the large majority of South Africans, as our economy was bought to a grinding halt. Unless a business’s offering was classified as an “essential service” that business was not allowed to operate, meaning the overwhelming majority of South African business owners stood to lose over a month’s worth of turnover. This brought a large degree of uncertainty to our country, considering the state of our already depressed economy.

Despite the uncertainty faced by South Africans, and the lingering fear of our economy turning into a state of disrepair, we listened intently to our president, and followed his orders during this time. Our president assured us that the decisions being taken were informed by sound advice from scientists who provided advisory services to the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC). With this in mind, South Africans humbly heeded our president's call to shut down our businesses and to remain at home as far as possible, all in a bid to allow our hospitals to prepare for the inevitable wave of Covid-19 cases.

South Africans had sacrificed so much in a bid to give our hospitals time to prepare for the incoming “peak” that it was a welcomed reprieve when certain industries began to open, allowing some breathing room for our struggling economy. This instilled a sense of hope in South Africans that we may be able to recover from this seemingly insurmountable setback we had been faced with.

It came as a total shock when our president once again imposed a ban on the sale, dispensation and distribution of alcohol, with the reason being that our hospitals are under-capacitated. Wasn’t the reason our citizens had suffered such hardships during the hard lockdown to prevent just that?

Just as our economy began to show signs of life, one of its biggest GDP contributors was stripped away, reinstating all fears of creating an economy which cannot be resuscitated.

At SAB, we are a company that will always put the safety of fellow citizens first, and we do support all reasonable measures taken by our government to contain the spread of Covid-19. However, we are not of the opinion that banning alcohol is a means to this end. Recent public pronouncements by scientific experts that are members of the Ministerial Advisory Committee, some of whom have spoken out against the recent decision to ban the sale of alcohol, have raised fresh questions on the transparency from the government on the one hand, and the reliability of the scientific evidence on the other.

In his speech, President Ramaphosa has said “there is now clear evidence that the resumption of alcohol sales has resulted in substantial pressure being put on hospitals, including trauma and ICU units, due to motor vehicle accidents, violence and related trauma”. This is a bold statement, considering that our public health sector is faced with data challenges which are as enormous as the health challenge itself.

This leaves researchers with no other option than to make informed guesses and sweeping assumptions on the status quo. As a result, the estimates on which the decision to reintroduce the ban were based, appear to present the worst-case scenario as far as alcohol related trauma cases are concerned. This means that what has been projected is an overstated scenario relating to how many patients are being admitted to hospitals.

Professor Charles Parry, the director of Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit at the South African Medical Research Council, has said that there is evidence to show that alcohol is not the sole contributor to trauma cases that are filling up hospital beds. Parry is also on record as saying, following the president’s announcement, that an indefinite ban on liquor was not a solution, calling for a more responsible regulated system without prohibiting a legal product.

Alcohol should not be made a sole scapegoat for the increase in trauma cases at hospitals, and our government should recognise that there were other factors at play, including increased mobility brought about by the lifting of the curfew in level 3. Increased mobility, by its very nature, means increased risk as people who are allowed to move around more freely, are more difficult to police.

The alcohol industry, and particularly SAB, is supportive of sustainable measures that enable regulated beer trade. We believe that these messages, coupled with responsible drinking programmes have the power to change the relationship South Africans have with alcohol, and will make a more meaningful impact than the ban itself.

SAB is committed to being a joint part of the solution, and investing in targeted programmes which address the harmful use of alcohol by the minority of our citizens. Our plea to the government is to focus on increased enforcement and visibility, as we saw in lockdown level 5 and 4, coupled by transparency through a meaningful engagement.

The alcohol industry is heavily invested in the economy and we would like for the economy to be reignited in order to preserve much needed jobs and livelihoods in our country. The reintroduction of the lockdown will not be kind on the alcohol industry value chain and threatens thousands of jobs should the status quo remain.

Every job and livelihood lost impacts our ability as a nation to put forward our best fight against the virus — it provides fertile ground for the virus to expand rapidly within the most vulnerable sectors of our society. Every job or livelihood lost means reduced access to nutrition, poorer living conditions, more crowded living conditions, reduced sanitary conditions, limited access to clean water as well as an inability to afford masks or soap.

We would like to emphasise that we share a common goal with our government. We want to, and strive to protect our people, but this cannot happen independently of protecting the livelihoods of our citizens, ensuring that when this is all over, our citizens have the means to support their families and their communities.

We stand behind you, President Ramaphosa, please don’t leave us behind.

 

  • Lisa is VP: Corporate Affairs at The South African Breweries

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