Introduction

Countries around the world have put in place numerous measures that help to prevent as well as contain the further spread of the Novel Coronavirus. Some measures that were put in place by governments in East Africa included curfew hours (Uganda 9pm, Rwanda 8pm and Kenya 7pm), the closing of learning institutions, or the closure of social places including bars and restaurants.

In a correspondence article published in The Lancet, researchers indicated that this time of isolation might lead to an increase in alcohol harm, for instance with regard to rising heavy alcohol use, relapse, and alcohol use disorders. This is potentially experienced in East Africa where alcohol sales are reported to have skyrocketed. The Chief Executive Officer of the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse Authority (NACADA) in Kenya in a television interview indicated that under our country’s containment measures, there is a remarkable surge in the online sale of alcohol.

Alcohol During the COVID-19 Pandemic: a Potential Public Health Crisis?

Alcohol Policy measures put in place by East African Countries during COVID-19

In Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya all bars and night clubs were ordered closed through directive orders issued by the Presidents of the respective countries. The three countries also imposed curfew hours in a bid to avoid their citizens from socializing at night.

In Kenya, there are two or three County Governments that banned alcohol sales completely during COVID-19.

Tanzania on the other hand only closed down schools but kept other venues for social gatherings operational, including bars and restaurants. And in Burundi, no specific COVID-19 measures were taken and everything is going on as usual.

Despite the policy measures put in place by Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, the same governments went ahead and listed alcohol as an essential product during the Coronavirus period. This enabled the sale of alcohol online, and wine and spirit shops, as well as supermarkets operated throughout the day – making alcohol easily available.

Innovative ways to circumvent government regulation

We have noted some varnished apartments, especially in Nairobi, that have been turned into dens for alcohol consumption. For example, media began reporting about numerous ways people used to “beat the system” in order to get alcohol. Other illegal activity to obtain alcohol comprise the use of secret passwords to enter underground bars; apartments furnished with alcohol, cashiers and waiters – and with sex workers easily available; alcohol shop owners running operations out of their living rooms, where much of the alcohol from the shop would be stocked to supply the neighborhood; bars operating 24 hours – ignoring the curfew and alcohol sales ban; car wash establishments and garages turned into liquor outlets where people consume alcohol as their vehicles are “being taken care of”.

Alcohol consumption in parks and other designated public spaces remains a problem in Rwanda and Kenya. For instance, the New Times reported, a new trend where people drive to scenic sites, especially on hills to congregate and consume alcohol. In Rwanda, police has had to arrest people who were consuming alcohol in cars and violated the COVID-19 physical distancing rules by exceeding five people per car.

A third phenomenon is that some security and night guards – listed as essential services – are working to ferry alcohol from the stores to underground outlets and illegal congregations; there is also reporting that police stations and military buildings are being used for gatherings to consume alcohol.

Across East Africa, we are witnessing stockpiling of alcohol and an increasing focus on online alcohol sales and fast on-demand delivery to people’s homes.

Kenya: Home Delivery Fuels Alcohol Harm

‘Leadership’ and alcohol during Covid-19

An outrageous incident that received international attention was when the Governor of Nairobi issued small bottles of Hennessy to be included in the food aid package for poor households. He justified the inclusion as “Throat Sanitizer” – claiming to rely on science:

I think from the research conducted by World Health Organizations and various organizations, it has been believed that alcohol plays a major role in killing the Coronavirus’.

The World Health Organization refuted the claims by the governor. In fact, WHO issued advice to the public and governments that consuming alcohol would not protect them from COVID-19, and encouraged governments to enforce measures which limit alcohol consumption. Even the alcohol maker, Hennessy – whose parent companies are alcohol industry giants LVMH and Diageo – reacted by clarifying alcohol cannot protect from COVID-19.

WHO: Restrict Alcohol Access During COVID-19 Lockdown

Civil society organizations used Twitter and other channels to appeal to Kenyans not to use alcohol to prevent and/or cure the Coronavirus. That alcohol myths can lead to people dying could be seen in Iran where bootleg alcohol had killed 194 people (as of March 2020). People got intoxicated after drinking alcohol in the belief it protects against the coronavirus.

In addition, we have seen instances where elected leaders are actually the ones breaking the rules set out by the governments. For example in Kenya, Members of the County Assembly and Members of Parliament were among the people arrested for congregating in bars to imbibe with alcohol.

Big Alcohol during COVID-19

East African governments pursued the strategy to bring big business on board in order to raise much-needed funds for the COVID-19 response. The alcohol industry was at the forefront to exploit the public health crisis for their private profit interests. They scrambled to provide personal protective equipment and other necessary essentials, such as hand sanitizers.

In Uganda for instance, a tweet by journalist Dorothy Nakaweesi indicated that “Ugandan Waragi manufacturers have agreed to convert 7.3 million liters of Ethanol into hand sanitizers.” In return, the government was expected to waive alcohol taxes.

It is a clear example of how and why Big Alcohol uses corporate social responsibility (CSR) schemes: it’s not altruism, but transaction to advance business objectives.

In other instances, the alcohol industry donated directly to national governments across East Africa, or to hospitals, and other institutions in need of resources. In a tweet by the Kenyatta National Hospital, they indicated “Pernod Ricard, an alcoholic beverage [company] came calling. They donated syringe pumps for use in surgical procedure”.

We have also noted that the alcohol industry is using the “opportunity” of the public health crisis to market and promote their products and brands. In a specific example, they approached one of the County Alcoholic Drinks Control Board in Kenya where they distributed hand sanitizers and also made proposals for “partnerships” in the near future. Again, just as in Uganda, I think it is apparent that the alcohol industry seeks to link CSR, with marketing and political influence to undermine alcohol policy systems.

Areas of needs for alcohol prevention practitioners to address during and after COVID-19

Children and adolescence are increasingly being exposed to and having access to alcohol during this pandemic with the rise in alcohol consumption at home, fueled by home delivery and online sales. Parents may become bad role models with more frequent and more heavy alcohol consumption at home; this might add to childrens’ mental health distress, as they are already spending a lot of time in more unstructured settings.

The risk that children might start using alcohol earlier is increasing.

Also because of the COVID-19 measures and the economic breakdown that followed, there is a likelihood that children are not required to show any identification and thus could often access alcohol more easily in shops and bars.

We have also heard of increasing instances where a person below the age of 18 years will sit somewhere in a park or other sites and make an online order for alcohol. The supplier will not bother to ask for identification. This explains why we see people under the influence of alcohol (both adults and youth) on our streets but we don’t know where they are getting the alcohol from. In this regard, the dangers are grave that our societies across East Africa will likely experience a reduction in the age of alcohol initiation, as well as an increase in alcohol harm in the near future.

Responses from the Civil Society

Civil society and community organizations came out strongly to ensure that their voices are heard. This was done by issuing press statements, virtual meetings, and social media advocacy.

In Uganda, the Uganda Youth Development Link (UYDEL), a member of Movendi International, in their press release highlighted that “Consuming high-strength alcohol does not kill the Coronavirus; Alcohol is not foodstuff and Alcohol is not an essential product”.

The Alcohol Control and Policy Network (ACPN) in Kenya in their press statement called upon the Government to resist any attempts made by the alcohol industry to lobby for deregulation and weakening of the existing alcohol laws.

In April, civil society organizations in Kenya came out strongly in opposition to the granting of ‘essential’ status for tobacco and alcohol in Kenya. Movendi International member organization ACPN together with the International Institute for Legislative Affairs (ILA) and the Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (Ketca) were compellingly calling on the government to remove the two substances from the list of essential products.

Kenya: Civil Society Opposes ‘Essential’ Status for Tobacco, Alcohol

I think it is these and other advocacy efforts from civil society and community partners across our region that give hope for our societies. As the alcohol industry is clearly mobilizing to use the crisis to advance their exploitative business in our communities, we have shown in recent months that, we, too, are ready to step up our efforts to protect our children and advance the development of our communities, through alcohol prevention and control.

The need for our efforts is only going to increase as the alcohol-related damage becomes clear in our countries.