Sexuality Policy Watch

To drink or not to drink – that is not the question: Alcohol consumption in India and South Africa in the time of COVID 19

By Dr. Debjyoti Ghosh*

“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.”
― Charles Bukowski, “Women”

For thousands of years, alcohol has been consumed by human beings. However, to say that alcohol is a divisive subject is an understatement. Several people across the world shun it on the basis of religion, others use it to celebrate theirs. In its various forms, it has been seen as the manna of the gods, it has been dedicated to the gods, it has been venerated as the blood of Christ, and it has also been seen as a mode of temptation and destruction. Historically, it has also been used as a mode to control native populations by colonising forces in some countries. The perceived pleasure derived from alcohol beverages can have a direct positive impact on mental and emotional wellbeing. However, places and cultures that consume more do not necessarily share the same burden of alcohol-related illnesses and harm. For instance, according to a WHO Global status report on alcohol and heath 2018, while Europe has the highest levels of alcohol consumption, Africa bears one of the greatest burdens of disease and injury related to alcohol.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have targets on substance abuse, and alcohol abuse comes under it. According to the report, poorer people have a higher “harm per litre” vis-a-vis wealthier people. Thus, poorer countries, in general, suffer more from situations of abuse and addiction. Developing countries, with socio-economic situations improving, also see higher alcohol consumption (due to disposable income going up), which can also have a detrimental effect on health.  Other than the typical addiction problems that we generally encounter, the WHO’s report also showcases studies linking alcohol to several non-communicable diseases, communicable diseases, and suicide. The harm to others is often on account of assault, community nuisance, or economic. While communicable diseases do not directly get transferred with alcohol, alcohol usage lowers inhibitions and can lead to risky sexual behaviour.

In March 2020, the World Health Organisation’s Director General, Tedros Adhanom, declared the spread of the Novel Corona virus, or COVID-19, to be a pandemic that is sweeping across the world. Since then, many countries went into total lockdown, with global and local travel having been brought to almost a total standstill, businesses shutting down, people losing their livelihoods, several economies on the precipice of disaster. Even where governments have not taken steps towards lockdowns, many workplaces shut offices and started work-from-home schedules where possible to mitigate chances of infection. People are expected to distance themselves from others in public areas, and if possible, stay at home unless it is absolutely essential to go out.

Over the last several years, there has also been a general rise in the social usage of alcohol across the world, and according to various reports, there is no doubt about the general rise in alcoholism. Many people use as well as abuse alcohol. It is associated both with happy gatherings and raising toasts, as well as with addiction, abuse, and alcohol-induced violence. Some use it to take the edge of their anxieties, and this particular period of COVID-19-induced uncertainties, the looming economic crises, being locked down alone or with people one might not necessarily get along with, alcohol might have been used as a way out for some. The US saw alcohol sales getting boosted by over 50% in this period. Twitter, Facebook, and various other social media platforms have filled out with memes around this, as well as the lack of alcohol availability in particular countries in lockdown.

Governments across the world have enforced a greater level of surveillance in order to make sure that “social distancing”, a term being used to make people physically distance from each other in public, is maintained, and that people report any signs of COVID-19-related symptoms. Different countries have responded differently to severities of lockdowns. In most countries, all public spaces where people can gather – temples of worship, malls, cinemas, parks – have been closed down. People have been allowed access to essential services, and wherever the lockdown is being eased off, various services are slowly opening up – for instance, cafes and restaurants are being allowed to serve take-away. Several countries still have a 12-hour curfew in place, with extremely limited mobility for their citizens.

The Indian government announced its lockdown in March 2020 4 hours before implementing it. While some services had been slowing down in the country already, with many people already working from home, in a country of 1.3 billion people, such unplanned behaviour has had its own repercussions. While it was lauded for it’s extremely stringent measures, several hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers got stranded, goods that were in transit got stuck on the highways, e-commerce was closed, and independent farmers and agriculturists were left with surplus produce on their hands without having a market or the distribution network to absorb it. In contrast, the South African government announced the first phase of a total lockdown 4 days before its start. Several educational institutions and offices had already been phased into a shut-down or work-from-home mode. Both the Indian government and the South African government also banned the sale of alcohol from supermarkets and off-shops. The Indian government has raised the restrictions as of now, and South Africa has allowed the sale as of June 1 of 2020 albeit with some restrictions.

Alcohol was marked as a non-essential item both in India and South Africa. Both countries have a complex history with their relationship with alcohol. In both countries, this decision did not seem to look at the detrimental effect that it could have on the economy, people who have dependency issues with alcohol who might require medical intervention. However, because of the severe lockdown rules and regulations, accessibility to withdrawal medication, or medical interventions were few and far between.

India has had a tenuous relationship with alcohol consumption from the very start of the Indian democracy. In pre-independent India, although it finds mention in several ancient texts, it was often seen as one of the evils connected with colonialism. Historically, some scholars believe that alcohol distillation started in ancient India. The Constitution of India has enshrined in its Directive Principles of State Policy in Article 47 that “the State shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health”.  Ironically, while even Gandhi espoused teetotalling, India today is globally in the top ten countries of alcohol consumption. It is one of the primary sources of revenue for many states. Various states of India, however, at different points of time, have enacted alcohol prohibition laws. Some were inspired by the temperance movement, and others, ostensibly because of the protests by survivors of domestic violence. This is not nationwide, and while alcohol is often seen as a negative foreign influence, it is found in different forms in various ancient texts.

South Africa’s relationship with alcohol, on the other hand, is not in any constitutionally directed principle towards prohibition at all. However, there is a historical South Africa’s apartheid history is interlaced with an intriguing relationship with alcohol. While alcohol was deemed a necessity for boosting the colonial economy, it also fed the fears of white people against the primal unknown, the indigenous people. The racial phobia also transferred itself to alcohol use and abuse. An inquiry in the late 19th Century (which informed several decisions of the colonial and Apartheid government well within the 20th Century) stated that Africans do not feel any embarrassment as opposed to Europeans, who felt a sense of disgrace. It was connected to the “native mind” being uncivilised. Words like “idle”, “drunkard” and “thieving” were attributed to the natives. This led to differentiated laws on prohibition, which were used to grant privileges to black people of importance – such as tribe chiefs and some educated people.  Coloured people, however, were treated differently. Colonisers who owned wine farms used to pay coloured workers with crude wine, thus starting a practice that lasted for over three hundred years. It was considered to be an adequate move to both motivated and control them.  The 20th Century saw alcoholism being termed as a disease that needed to be treated. During the Apartheid regime, white and coloured people were afforded social services as they were considered to be victims of alcoholism, whereas the narrative of alcohol usage for black people was translated into deviant behaviour by a people apparently already prone to criminal behaviour.

With the rise of the rainbow nation, it started being widely acknowledged that alcohol abuse by the poorer sections of society put further stress on already stressed finances, living conditions, and affected family members adversely. Women and children, in particular, were victims of this abuse. Many children were born with foetal alcohol syndrome. The Medical Research Council has repeatedly pointed out that most of their trauma cases are alcohol related, with most victims being women and children. Today, several Christian churches condemn drinking and drinkers. Despite this, South Africa ranks in the top five countries globally in alcohol consumption. The World Health Organisation has reported that of all road accidents that happen in South Africa, a very large number is due to alcohol abuse. It has also some dismal statistics on alcohol related morbidities in South Africa, reporting approximately one in ten people.

The alcohol ban during the strictest phases of lockdown in India and South Africa have led to different reactions. Both countries came under a lot of criticism – from the fact that different aspects of the economy would be affected to the threat of alcohol companies wanting to sue the governments. Several countries across the world, while also going into lockdown, have allowed the sale of alcohol. In India, most standalone liquor stores and bars/pubs across many states were asked to shut down even before the national lockdown was announced. The ostensible reason was to avoid congregation as, with consumption of alcohol, people become less careful and less responsible, something that the South African government stated as well. South Africa has several townships where many people, mostly poor, live in relatively congested conditions.  These townships have taverns and shebeens where people congregate and drink alcohol. All of them remained closed during the lockdown.

By stopping the overall regular sale of alcohol, neither India nor South Africa managed to stop the consumption of alcohol during lockdown. Instead, both countries fed a massive black market and pushed people into making homemade alcohol such as hooch, country liquor, toddy, pineapple beer, etc. While some people, primarily the middle class and higher, stocked up on alcohol in advance, others were left to their own devices. In these situations, people who suffer from addictions, but cannot afford black market prices, look for other addictive substances, and often, to their extreme detriment. Black markets profit people in power all over the world, and India and South Africa are no exceptions. Keeping bans on goods that are generally purchased due to a higher disposable income or especially an addiction does not stop people from buying them. They will seek them out, even at higher prices. This has not only led to a massive impetus to illicit trade, but several instances of the goods being spurious. There were also reports from India about spurious alcohol being sold after the ban was lifted – the demand was higher than the immediate supply, and profiteers profited.

The alcohol ban in India, touted as the “Gujarat Model” by some, because of the prohibition that has been running there for several decades (and in part because of the central government being run by the BJP), brought about a severe drying of state coffers, with the Central Government cutting the shares of the states’ portions of direct taxes. With the Central Government lifting the ban, there was a tremendous outpour of people queuing up outside off-shops, to a point where some of them had to be closed down because of the lack of social distancing by people, which may lead to a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases. Despite everything, it started an intense cash flow into the states’ coffers, with Uttar Pradesh seeing a record sale worth Rs. 1 billion (approximately USD 13 million) in one day. Other states saw such a rush as well. Unexpected, but it has actually helped the economies of various states. New Delhi levied a “Corona Tax” of 70% on alcohol purchases, but it did not seem to deter the buyers. Ironically, alcohol bans that are there in various parts of India during general times also do not work too well. For instance, the state of Bihar’s ban on alcohol led to a sharp rise in the alcohol-related revenues of the surrounding states, thus indirectly hinting at illegal imports. Gujarat has an open secret when it comes to an alcohol black market.

Through the period of strict lockdown, just the way pollution went down globally, in South Africa, outdoor crime rates went down, reports of domestic violence survivors went down at trauma centres, and basically, general hospital visits overall went down. While the same has been seen in countries across the spectrum with different socio-economic realities, South Africa has had many people in power stating that the alcohol prohibition has been the primary reason for this. While there is no doubt that there may be instances of alcohol-induced irrational behaviour and violence, to give credit to the alcohol ban for a reduction in robbery, gun-violence and car-theft seems a bit ludicrous when the nation has been put under lockdown and there is a 12-hour curfew every day and arrests are being made for people who are breaking curfew without a valid reason.

Given that several Indian states’ coffers heaved a sigh of relief after the ban was lifted on alcohol sales, no matter what the moral stance is on alcohol usage, a more controlled and regulated sale of it would have probably been more useful. The virus has had a tremendous impact on economies across the world, and the formal alcohol industry in both South Africa and India employ several hundreds of thousands of people. Also, production, while it has been halted, had led to the point where the South African breweries were about to throw out several million litres of beer. While it’s easy to joke about the situation, it is actually a huge waste of produce. Fortunately, the South African government allowed the breweries to transport the produce to warehouses, thus at least stopping a huge wastage.

The fact that governments think they need to monitor food or alcohol consumption is the symptom of much deeper issues. Neither India nor South Africa has been a stranger to consumption-related controversies. It showcases a particular type of paternalism that eschews conservative principles, obviously going against the poorer sections of society, and can be seen as a slippery slope. However, no freedom is absolute in the face of what may be considered a national, if not international, emergency. Governments are within their rights to take steps that they believe can help curb the spread of the pandemic – but without a thought-out rationale, only to fall back on age-old conservatism, they lay themselves open to severe criticism. What they need to remember is that, in a democracy, they are firstly, and always, answerable to their people, and there because of the people.

* Dr. Debjyoti Ghosh is a human rights lawyer from Kolkata, India, currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has been involved in LGBTQ+ activism for over a decade, and has made it a part of his academic research as well. His PhD research focused on the right to health for transgender people in a comparative constitutional law study between India, Brazil and South Africa. At the moment, he is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Sociology, University of Pretoria in South Africa, looking into Political Citizenship.

Originally published at Vibrant, Virtual Braz Anthr [Internet], in 2020. Available here: 

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