Return of alcohol ban stirs debate in South Africa

Divided opinion in South Africa after president reimposes coronavirus restrictions to reduce burden on hospitals.

The return of a ban on alcohol sales has stirred debate among South Africans as the government steps up efforts to reduce pressure on hospitals amid a rapid increase in coronavirus infections.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a televised address on Sunday, blamed the resumption of alcohol sales last month for burdening hospitals and clinics with related injuries, violence and trauma.

He went on to outline preventive measures, including a nighttime curfew and mandatory mask-wearing when in public.

Ramaphosa also lambasted citizens who have continued to hold social gatherings, including parties and overcrowded funerals, saying they had contributed significantly to the rapid spread of the virus.

South Africa has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Africa and the ninth-highest tally globally, at 287,796.

It is now recording the fourth-largest daily increase in new infections worldwide, while its official coronavirus-related death toll stands at 4,172.

“South Africa has one of the lowest death rates compared to other countries – but it might not stay that way,” Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Johannesburg, said.

“A quarter of those deaths were recorded in the last week alone, and estimates indicate there could be between 40,000 and 50,000 deaths in the months to come.”

At the end of March, Ramaphosa announced one of the toughest lockdowns anywhere in the world, banning anyone but essential workers from leaving home except to buy food or medicine. At the time, South Africa had recorded just 400 cases.

The country started slowly reopening parts of the economy from May and again in June, but infections have started to spike again.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said the government was avoiding taking responsibility for the crisis and shifting blame to the citizens.

“The argument that alcohol trauma is putting the system under pressure is simply an excuse and cover-up for this failure. Alcohol is the scapegoat, not the reason,” it said on Twitter.

Many also said the measures will have economic, as well as social implications.

“The speech delivered by the president will have a huge impact on the people of South Africa,” Nokwanda Zenzile, a student, told The Associated Press news agency.

“Because many people, especially women, were complaining about their safety that men will harass us due to their frustration of alcohol being banned,” the Johannesburg resident said.

Zbusiso Mkhwanazi, a South African entrepreneur, wrote on Twitter: “As much as I personally support the ban but those are still jobs lost. The focus is to now help brands think differently to salvage as much jobs as we can.”

Others, however, chimed in support for the government restrictions.

“We are in an intense time of difficulty, so our hospitals must not be full,” Douglas Ngobeni, another Johannesburg student, told AP.

“Let us be patient as a country. Alcohol does not go anywhere, because this thing of banning alcohol is being done merely for the fact that hospitals must not be full, so to accommodate the victims of the virus.”

According to health minister Zweli Mkhize, hospital admissions in the emergency and trauma units of South African hospitals increased by up to 60 percent when the ban on selling alcohol was lifted in June.

A countrywide curfew that went into effect on Monday mandates that people, excluding those travelling to or from work or seeking medical help, must not be on the roads between 9pm and 4am.

Masks have also been declared mandatory, with all transport operators, employers, and owners of businesses and buildings now legally obliged to ensure everyone entering their businesses or premises is wearing a mask. Family visits and social activities remain banned.

Ramaphosa said current projections showed different provinces would reach the peak of infections between the end of July and late September.

He added that top health officials warn of impending shortages of hospital beds and medical oxygen as South Africa reaches the peak, noting that some hospitals have had to turn away patients because all their beds are full.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies