July 13, 2020 / 4:06 PM / in a month

South African alcohol ban stirs frustration but may free up hospitals

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s decision to reimpose a ban on the sale of alcohol upset consumers and the hospitality sector on Monday, but health experts said it could free up space in stretched hospitals as coronavirus cases spike.

FILE PHOTO: Customers hold umbrellas as they observe a safe distance outside a liquor store as South Africa eases a two-month lockdown to try to revive the economy amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Soweto, South Africa June 1, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Ramaphosa announced the return of the ban, which was only lifted on June 1, in an address to the nation on Sunday, saying it was necessary to ease pressure on the healthcare system.

South Africa is now recording more than 12,000 new coronavirus cases a day, the fourth-largest daily increase worldwide, and deaths from COVID-19 rose by a quarter in the past week to over 4,000, official data show.

Within hours of Ramaphosa’s address, consumers took to social media to vent their anger with hashtags like #AlcoholHasFallen.

Many Twitter users said they would resort to brewing their own beverages or buying bootleg liquor, while bar staff and liquor store workers worried they would struggle to put food on the table.

“For people like us, the bartenders, what can we do for us to live? That’s all I want to know,” Soweto resident Karabo Lebelo told Reuters.

An industry group representing brewers, liquor traders and wine producers said the ban would have serious economic consequences, placing a huge number of livelihoods at risk. It said a better approach would be to target problematic drinking.

Despite its unpopularity, the alcohol ban could help thousands more COVID-19 patients get treated, medical experts said.

Modelling by South Africa’s Medical Research Council (MRC) showed that if the ban were kept in place for eight weeks, it could enable the treatment of roughly 17,750 COVID-19 patients in general wards, or 12,950 in intensive care units, because of fewer admissions due to alcohol-related trauma, MRC director of alcohol research Charles Parry said.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said officials wanted to avoid a situation where a COVID-19 patient would arrive at a hospital with no beds left because of avoidable alcohol-related ailments.

Cooperative governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said drinkers could not be trusted to keep their distance from others - to minimise transmission of COVID-19 - and were often responsible for acts of violence.

Reporting by Alexander Winning, Siyabonga Sishi, Nqobile Dludla, Tanisha Heiberg, Promit Mukherjee and Tumelo Modiba; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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