Business / Business News

Ina Opperman
Business Journalist
3 minute read
13 Jul 2021
3:27 pm

Covid-19 and alcohol: what does the research say?

Ina Opperman

Liquor traders have asked for proof that alcohol consumption leads to increased transmission of Covid-19, but the government refuses to provide the studies it bases its decisions on.

Picture: iStock

Covid-19 and alcohol consumption has become a bone of contention as liquor traders and the government differ about bans on alcohol sales.

The important question here is what does the research say? Have any studies been done to see if Covid-19 spreads more rapidly in an environment in which people drink alcohol?

Professor Alex van den Heever, chair of social security systems administration and management studies at the Wits School of Governance, says he knows of no such evidence.

“Alcohol consumption can indirectly spread Covid through encouraging people to congregate in bars and nightclubs, but you can mitigate the risk by prohibiting them from opening without prohibiting alcohol sales.”

ALSO READ: ‘Give us the data to justify alcohol ban’, NCCC told by Beer Association

On the other hand, he says, alcohol consumption definitely contributes to trauma cases, particularly over weekends. “During periods when beds are filled to capacity at the peak of a wave it makes sense to restrict alcohol sales purely for this reason. Although prohibiting sales just over the weekend period could be a less restrictive approach as people will just buy alcohol before the weekend.”

Van den Heever says he sees no value in an alcohol ban to address the spread of Covid, but it is relevant when hospital beds are full to over-flowing. Once the hospitalisations begin to normalise, this becomes less of an issue.

ALSO READ: Third Covid wave: Booze ban not off the table, says Health Department

Research

Very little research has been done on the spread of Covid-19 in an environment in which people drink alcohol. One small study conducted before the pandemic was applied to the possibility of spreading Covid-19.

The study was published in February this year on the website of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). It posits that alcohol consumption narrows physical distance between strangers and 212 young, healthy social drinkers were recruited for a trial examining alcohol’s effects in a social context.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation have warned people against combining alcohol consumption and social interaction during the pandemic because they believe that drinking alcohol is likely to decrease adherence to physical distancing guidelines.

ALSO READ: Government’s booze ban argument no longer holds water, says alcohol body

The researchers acknowledged the complicated debate about closing bars while there is a lack of evidence on alcohol’s effects on physical distancing. The results indicated that alcohol caused individuals to draw significantly closer to unfamiliar people during social exchanges, reducing physical proximity, with potentially important implications for public health.

However, alcohol had no effect on physical distancing with a familiar partner. This finding suggests that alcohol could make you overcome a natural caution towards strangers and therefore promote virus transmission between previously unconnected social groups as time passed and intoxication increased.

The researchers pointed out that alcohol is known to impair judgment and promote violations of social restrictions, even if people were seated away from each other.

“When considered in terms of the length of a typical drinking session, the rate of change estimated in the current study would result in physical distance reductions with potentially important implications for virus spread,”m