In few other countries in the world have COVID-19 and alcohol consumption become so dangerously intertwined.
With 324,221 cases, South Africa is the sixth most infected country in the world for coronavirus, according to an AFP tally.
It also typically ranks among the countries with the highest per-capita alcohol consumption — a phenomenon, partly fuelled by easy availability of drink, that also carries a high medical cost.
The staggering scale of that bill was brought home after South Africa imposed a rare moratorium on alcohol sales, to go hand-in-hand with a virus lockdown on March 27.
The ban was lifted on June 1 and emergency rooms suddenly teemed with alcohol-related cases: car crashes, gunshot wounds, stab injuries and accidents, which filled beds and diverted manpower from the soaring load of coronavirus patients.
On Sunday and without notice, President Cyril Ramaphosa reinstituted the prohibition.
“When the alcohol restrictions were lifted… facilities reported up to 60% of increase in trauma emergencies admissions and up to 200% increase in ICU on trauma admissions,”Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said.
The renewed ban should free up just under 50,000 beds in public hospitals over the next eight weeks, according to Charles Parry, director of South Africa Medical Research Council’s alcohol research unit.
Pandemic-weary doctors were at times forced to choose between a sick patient with coronavirus and an emergency case of somebody bleeding from alcohol-related trauma, Mkhize said.
“We are hoping that number of trauma cases will come down,” said Alaric Jacobs, spokesman for Groote Schuur, a large government hospital in Cape Town, one of the country’s coronavirus hotspots.
“It was exhausting… having to deal with trauma cases that could have been controlled and also having to deal with COVID-19 cases.”
Don’t say cheers
Experts say South Africans need to re-examine their relationship with alcohol.
“There is significant information that allows one to say that South Africa has a drinking problem,” said clinical psychologist Sinqobile Aderinoye, who specialises in this matter. (AFP)