During this epidemic, one of the most fundamental yet frequently overlooked questions policy-makers have had to confront is drawing the line between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ goods. Their decision determines what can and cannot be sold during lockdowns. The choice surrounding one commodity, in particular, has presented ethical and political quandaries: alcohol. While most nations have permitted the sale of liquor as essential goods during lockdowns, India and South Africa belong to a minority that have begun to prohibit or restrict its sale. As a result, these populations have been forced to re-examine the fragile balance between personal liberty and the state’s interests in maintaining public order.
Both nations have justified the ban on alcohol by contending that it leads to other public threats and health problems that need to be mitigated during the pandemic. In South Africa, alcohol is involved in 40% of all emergency hospitalizations according to police, medic and analyst estimates. Thus, the motive behind banning alcohol sales was to empty more hospital beds for COVID-19 patients by reducing drunk fights, domestic violence, and other alcohol-related crimes. It was also argued that alcohol can heighten risk-taking behavior, mental health issues and violence, risks no government is willing to undertake during a pandemic. In India, alcohol abuse leads to many annual deaths, according to WHO estimates, and threatens to aggravate the health conditions of a population that is already vulnerable to the coronavirus due to a high number of patients suffering from underlying respiratory diseases and diabetes.
However, on May 4, India began to ease its liquor ban by legalizing its sale in limited portions. The outcome? Masses of booze-deprived individuals crowded around liquor stores disregarding all norms of social distancing. While it is difficult to ascertain if such chaos was directly responsible for the spike in the COVID-19 cases in India, it was certainly indicative of an unruly culture that pervaded India as alcohol became available to the masses after a hiatus of 6 weeks. Unsurprisingly, the state’s response was to deploy policemen to enforce six-feet social distancing between the buyers. Even the most liberal members of Indian society would have called for the containment of such a ruckus. Such is the paradox of liberalism in India, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a revered India commentator, recently highlighted. Meanwhile, South Africa made no attempt to ease its ban on liquor sales. In fact, the state has continued administering the prohibition, often using draconian measures against those that violate the law. A BBC article reported the police beating a man to death in his own backyard for allegedly consuming alcohol. It’s thus no surprise that a black market for alcohol has quickly sprung up and flourished. Not only is this costly for the consumers who now pay almost five times the original price to satisfy their wants, but it also deprives the government of tax revenues from alcohol sales. It appears that the alcohol bans have only deteriorated civil order by pumping up black markets and inviting brutal state repression.
So, how do policy-makers and enforcers regulate the sale of a good that has the potential to cause public unrest in an already difficult time? The efforts by India and South Africa to police the lives of the people have shown minimal success and raised eyebrows of liberals in both nations. A common global pattern of governmental response to the pandemic has been an expansion of state power and capacity. While stay-at-home and lockdown orders tend to be justified under the pretext of public healthcare and welfare, these measures are difficult to ethically uphold because they directly infringe on individual rights. However, this encroachment upon personal liberties would not be necessary if civil society could properly govern itself. The moment an individual’s freedom to consume alcohol becomes a public hazard, it becomes an opportunity for the state to extend its authority. Members of civil society, on their part, must exercise this freedom with caution, especially during a pandemic, without giving the state an opportunity to disrupt and dominate their lives. The alcohol bans in India and South Africa are a testament to this. Let us not brew more chaos in this already frenzied world.