By Nerea González
Johannesburg, May 15 (efe-epa).- When the South African government declared a nationwide coronavirus lockdown in March, the sale of alcoholic beverages and tobacco was banned in a bid to curb drunken street fights and booze-fuelled domestic violence.
The ban on alcohol, which according to some estimates contributes to 40 percent of hospital admissions, was intended to reduce the strain on clinics that would need to be able to handle the potential spike of Covid-19 cases, but it has also led people to try to circumvent the newly-imposed prohibition in a variety of ways: from making beer using pineapples to surreal robberies in search of alcohol.
Police minister Bheki Cele asked the population to stay sober for 21 days – the initial lockdown was expected to last 3 weeks – when the country was preparing for the virus shutdown.
Many saw the ban as an excessive measure then, and the opposition condemned the “nanny state” that South Africans were being subjected to, while the alcoholic beverage industry – from production to sales – prepared for a hard blow to revenues.
But for trying to reduce crime, domestic violence and other alcohol-related hospital admissions, the state has also paid a high price. It has lost millions in tax revenue: for the current financial year, the government was expected to receive nearly 1.5 billion dollars from alcohol taxes alone.
South Africa wasn’t the only country to ban booze during the coronavirus lockdown. Neighbouring countries such as Botswana and Lesotho also prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages, while Greenland, Mexico, Thailand and Sri Lanka have also imposed similar restrictions.
When the initial three-week shutdown in South Africa was ultimately extended to five weeks and the government finally announced that it would start easing lockdown measures from 1 May, the end of the alcohol ban was one of the first questions to be raised.
But the government’s refusal to lift the prohibition came as a major disappointment to many South Africans who had been longing for a glass of wine or an ice cold beer to celebrate the first phase of de-escalation. They will have to wait until the next phase, which is expected to start at the end of May.
South Africa remains the worst-hit country on the continent, with 12,739 cases and 238 deaths.
With the prohibition of alcohol and tobacco, a black market has flourished on street corners or even door to door inside buildings.
Sometimes they are distilled beverages of dubious origin. Occasionally, the spirits come from bars and warehouses that are trying to make some money since they remain closed.
Many South Africans have also enthusiastically embraced the idea of making their own homemade beverages.
The most popular is pineapple beer, made with fruit, sugar and yeast. Sales of this product have multiplied by nearly 10 during the lockdown.
“It is quite good and not very strong,” explained a local who now makes pineapple bear and homemade cider in his kitchen and wants to remain anonymous.
“I will understand anything that is necessary to overcome this. I am not particularly against the ban if it really helps us to reduce crime (…). People will have to adapt, this is very unpredictable,” he added.
Homemade recipes have gone viral in the country, although they entail a risk. In recent days, local media reported the deaths of a couple allegedly after drinking homemade beer.
In light of the ban, robberies at liquor stores across the country have grown significantly.
In the small town of Rustenburg, robbers appeared in a hotel demanding alcohol at gunpoint.
“The top priority was alcohol and then they wanted access to the rooms, obviously to see what goodies there were,” Willie Kruger, hotel manager, explained to South African news broadcaster eNCA.