Carrie’s Corner: Unpacking government’s approach to the liquor industry during Covid-19

Carrie Adams sits down with Michael Fridjhon – a wine critic and specialist – to discuss government’s handling of the liquor industry during the Covid-19 lockdown. Adams describes the award-winning journalist and wine expert as ‘an overall asset to the South African wine industry’. – Jarryd Neves

Michael Fridjhon on the government’s handling of the liquor industry:

It would be hard to be enthusiastic about it. 20 weeks of lockdown in less than a year is not the sort of thing that helps any industry to stay afloat. When you look at the impact of the prohibition on the sale of alcohol – together with the lockdown of the hospitality sector – what you have is a huge crisis brewing right across the sector. On the assumption that government understood that that would be the consequence of its action, you have to ask yourself, firstly, whether it was essential to do that – in relation to the Covid threat – and whether there wasn’t perhaps a more nuanced approach to dealing [with it].

On why the government would want to close the alcohol industry down:

 In the initial stages – the very first lockdown in March last year – they were looking at the unknown, in terms of Covid. The first requirement was to prepare the country for it. We can go into a long debate about whether they used the time profitably, but that very first level five lockdown was pretty complete and for everybody. The only difference there was that they included the online sale of alcohol, which most other countries permitted.

That was, I think, political. You can’t escape the thought that they felt that if you were going to permit liquor sales, then the people who trade liquor extensively – and not in a click and collect environment – would have been prejudiced. That once again, the middle classes with credit cards and online facilities would have been able to exploit the situation – or take advantage of it – at the expense of those who didn’t have the right.

In terms of shops open, clothing stores were not open. Only essential. I still think that was heavy handed, but I do understand the purpose behind it. Interestingly, I was having a discussion with somebody in a senior position in Australian government who, when I explained that this was a lockdown complete in terms of all forms of alcohol sales, rolled her eyes and said, ‘in Australia, the alcohol industry was regarded as an essential service and given the necessary exemptions to continue operating’.

We have a country which doesn’t manage its relationship with alcohol that well. I think the feeling was that if people were drinking and partying in lockdown, there would be in an environment in which the virus would spread that much more quickly. Let’s tick the box for level five. From that point onwards, I have to say, I don’t think that they were acting in the best interests of the country – let alone the best interests of the liquor industry.

The problem, they will tell you, is that because of this fraught relationship between alcohol and the population, if they allowed alcohol sales, then there would be lots of misbehavior. Lots of misbehavior would mean, on the one hand, much too much socialising and therefore facilitating the spread of the virus. The other point was simply that because people drink and then get violent, the space that they were clearing for the management of Covid patients would be taken up by victims of violence.

On why this doesn’t work:

The management of alcohol is a matter of enforcement. Closing it off at source, as I have often said, is like saying that if there are motor accidents, stop the sale of cars. That doesn’t make sense. There is an interesting consequence of this, and that is when you analyse the reduction in trauma in other societies over lockdown and the reduction in trauma in South Africa over lockdown – with the prohibition on liquor sales – we did no better. In other words, one of the conclusions that you have to draw is that it is the restriction on movement that produces the most important result.

Therefore, they could, in fact, have opened alcohol sales but enforced curfews and restrictions on movement. They didn’t do that. So at this point, you have to say, are they as incompetent as most people seem to think they are? Or is there an ulterior motive [and] a much more sinister purpose? And here we do have to move to one of the real unifiers in the much fragmented ANC, and that is that generally, there is a very strong prohibitionist lobby which runs right through the society and right through their voting support.

On alcohol related trauma:

Well, certainly there is a lot of alcohol related trauma. You talk to trauma doctors and they will tell you that in certain areas particular hospitals [are] full over the weekends, as a result of alcohol related trauma. There’s no quick fix to that problem, because it should have been dealt with years ago in terms of proper education around the use of alcohol.

You’re not going to deal with it now and certainly not with a sledgehammer. There is a real issue. The violence is absolutely there. It is, in fact, hotspot related. Many of those hotspots have been researched. The first thing you would expect from an intelligent state, is to make sure that the areas in which this violence occurs are properly policed. That enforcement is at a much more rigorous level than in areas where the problem doesn’t occur.

Secondly, you’d want to see a lot more roadblocks relating to drunk driving. This is what Australia, the U.K and Europe has managed to achieve. It takes time because you do have to change the attitude of people to the dangers of getting behind the wheel when you’ve had too much to drink. In this country, it is pretty much a known fact that the police who are managing their of blocks are easily persuaded to take some money and let you go. Nobody sees it as a downside risk. They see it as an expense – a form of taxation.

That is very bad because it’s exactly those people who when they have an accident and they do kill somebody, you can’t buy that one back. The job of the police is not to collect bribes. The job of the police is to actually enforce the law, not just take people’s licence’s away. If you’re driving drunk – which is exactly what is the situation in Australia, Britain and France – they go to jail. If you go to jail, you’ll be surprised how quickly people will alter the way they get about life and the amount of alcohol that they drink before they get behind the wheel.

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