Rorisang Kgosana
Premium Journalist
4 minute read
24 May 2021
6:55 pm

Third Covid wave: Booze ban not off the table, says Health Dept

Rorisang Kgosana

The liquor industry is anticipating another alcohol ban, while government is confident hospitals have the capacity to handle the third wave.

An elderly lady being admitted at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, 11 January 2021, Pretoria. Picture: Jacques Nelles

The Department of Health is confident that it has the capacity to deal with the third wave of Covid-19 infections, but that does not mean a potential booze ban is off the table.

In response to The Citizen’s queries, the department said that it could in all likelihood cope with a rise in infections. But alcohol-related trauma cases are always something to consider when the healthcare system is put under severe strain.

This as there is a greater anticipation that President Cyril Ramaphosa will address the nation in the coming days and potentially move South Africa to a higher lockdown level due to rising Covid-19 infections.

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This includes a possible ban, or curtailed sales hours, on alcohol as Covid-19 infections increase. In response, the liquor industry has actively approached President Cyril Ramaphosa for a meeting to find sustainable solutions should government impose yet another alcohol ban.

Government has thus far imposed three liquor bans throughout the the one-year State of Disaster, saying that it eased congestion in hospitals due to alcohol related trauma.

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In a letter addressed to the President, the National Liquor Traders Council (NLTC) and the Liquor Traders Association of South Africa (LTASA) coalition, which represents liquor traders in townships including taverns, called on Ramaphosa to engage the industry on decisions taken which could impact their business and to provide scientific evidence for any decision made.

Alcohol-related trauma cases and hospital beds

The latest wave of infections come shortly after South Africa donated scores of ventilators to India, as that country suffered a devastating wave of Covid-19 infections and deaths.

This begged the question whether this means the country has increased its own capacity to deal with the virus, and whether another booze ban would even be necessary to help ease hospital congestion.

In response, health department spokesperson Popo Maja said “realistically speaking”, they were ready to handle the third wave, but that the effects of alcohol-related trauma cases could not be underestimated.

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“Alcohol complicates and compromises our country’s health system ability to handle critically ill patients. There’s evidence that if we restrict the sale and public consumption of alcohol, we will enable our health system to have sufficient beds to treat those who are critically ill due to Covid-19.”

With the current spike in infections, about 4856 infected people are currently hospitalised, with statistics by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) showing that 886 were in ICU while 442 were on ventilation. The majority of patients – 1940 – are in Gauteng.

Should 5% of the population be infected and sick enough to require hospital care, however, the system would collapse, he said.

“That is why we are deciding on non-pharmaceutical preventative measures so that we don’t have a situation where people need to be hospitalised, because if just 5% of our population gets sick and needs hospitalisation, the system will collapse. I am talking in both private and public sector,” Maja said.

System would collapse if third wave emulates second

Should the third wave be as strong as the second wave, with more people seeking hospitalisation, the health system would not be able to cope, despite what the health department projects, said Stellenbosch University epidemiologist Dr Jo Barnes.

“The previous wave was really bad and the official numbers they had were way under count. And you cannot just look at the people hospitalised in the second wave, but also those who died because they didn’t have access to healthcare. If they had made effort to go to the hospital, then we wouldn’t have had enough hospital capacity.”

Youth again to blame for infection spike

While figures by the NICD show that the majority of those hospitalised are above the ages of 50, it is the youth, however, that are to blame for the current increase in infections, said Maja.

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“Currently, we are seeing more and more young people getting infected and this is the student population.  If you look at surrounding areas where universities are, majority of the people who test positive are young people.”

“We don’t have a huge number of young people being hospitalised. These young people are healthy but the problem is they get home and infect those with comorbidities or elderly family.”

He said the department was putting more emphasis on the public following protocols of wearing masks, socially distancing, and sanitising.

“These youths go to night clubs and they don’t follow protocols or wear masks. The virus does not spread itself – it is people,” said Maja.