Through an Extraordinary Government Gazette dated March 28 2020, the Government of Zimbabwe declared a Public Health Emergency resulting in a 21-day national lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Accordingly, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) on the 2nd of April 2020 announced that they will be enforcing a ban on the sale of alcohol in retail outlets countrywide to prevent the spread of Covid-19. However, the ban was lifted within 24 hours.
As part of the public health community, I fully support the temporary regulations relating to the ban on the sale of alcohol in the interest of containing the spread of Covid-19.
The reversal of the ban is however regrettable for the following reasons.
Lifting the restrictions on the availability of alcohol may provide a temporary respite for those who want to drink, but it is not a long-term solution.
Furthermore, it has the potential to undermine the country’s efforts to contain the coronavirus.
Alcohol, when ingested by humans, weakens the immune system and increases the risk of infection with Covid-19 and other infectious diseases. Limited financial resources diverted to alcohol use will increase interpersonal violence. Older people and women, in particular, will face increased risk as they struggle to feed families.
The availability of alcohol will bring people out of their homes. This will reduce the effectiveness of the lockdown as people searching for alcohol continue to leave their houses.
The culture of sharing beer bottles and glasses when drinking beer compromises people’s adherence to hygiene and social distancing recommendations. Also, when people get intoxicated, their inhibitions and judgment become impaired, thus further compromising their ability to practice Covid-19 prevention.
Banning the distribution and sale of alcohol as we fight to stop the spread of Covid-19 is a critical element in the country’s containment strategy.
It will reduce strain on the country’s health system so that it can respond to the needs of the pandemic more effectively.
It will also minimise non-adherence to physical distancing and good personal hygiene practices.
The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a public health and economic crisis, not only in Zimbabwe but across the whole world. When resources are stretched as it is in this case, society benefits from more regulation of the alcohol industry to decrease alcohol harm, as well as alleviate alcohol’s burden on the health and economic system.
Those resources can be reinvested for the benefit of public health and wellbeing.
With that said, there is a need for an extensive communication campaign to get communities to really support the efforts of the Government and understand why allowing alcohol availability during this period would hamper the country’s efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 and increase the risk of getting infected.
The communication campaign should also ensure that law enforcement agencies are aware that their role is helping people to understand how to contain the spread of the virus. Such regulations should then be implemented within the human rights framework.
While the lockdown is a temporary measure, we will learn valuable lessons during this period. This could lead to stronger, more effective long-term alcohol regulation.
I also call upon the Government to consider fast-tracking the enactment of the draft National Alcohol Policy.
◆ Tungamirai Zimonte is a public health activist and coordinator of Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance Zimbabwe (SAAPA ZW), a national network of civil society organisations advocating for a public health-centered, evidence-based alcohol policy in Zimbabwe.