Probe under way into how alcohol is ‘clogging’ hospital beds

Limiting legal access to alcohol is unlikely to significantly influence people towards responsible behaviour, the writer says.
Image: 123RF/Vladislavs Gorniks

The health department has appointed a “special task team” to assess the impact of alcohol consumption during the lockdown on already under-pressure health infrastructure.

Health director-general Sandile Buthelezi made the announcement during an appearance before parliament’s portfolio committee on health on Wednesday morning.

Buthelezi said that since the ban on alcohol was lifted, serious problems have emerged. Chief among these challenges was the “clogging” of emergency beds from alcohol-related incidents.

Prof Glenda Gray, a member of the health department’s ministerial advisory committee, told MPs that since the lifting of the ban on alcohol sales, public hospitals had come under pressure.

“Once we lifted the prohibition on alcohol, we saw two things happen: we saw our emergency rooms and hospital beds fill up and we saw an increase in gender-based violence,” she said.

“So we have been following the data. We looked at the data during lockdown and we saw a huge reductions in hospital beds during the lockdown, which now have increased.

“Our job is to keep the hospital beds open for Covid. What we have to do is prevent alcohol-related injuries.”

“We also see that a lot of the alcohol accidents happen at night, and so we have to try and control the accidents which happen at night.

“We have got to try and control alcohol-related incidents, such as gender-based violence and what alcohol does to our emergency rooms.

“It is quite clear that there is a direct relationship between alcohol use and bed occupancy. We need to find a way of protecting the beds so that we can use them for Covid-19. It is a waste of beds: any alcohol-related injury is a waste of a bed. As South Africans we should be doing everything we can to protect the beds and minimise alcohol-related injuries.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa last week lamented the “social ills” that returned with the lifting of the alcohol ban.

“After the relaxation of the alcohol ban, they [hospitals] have now been clogged with a number of cases resulting from road accidents, stab wounds, gunshot wounds and violent encounters that many of our people have had and that is deeply regrettable,” he said.

Despite this, Ramaphosa has given no indication that the ban would be reinstated or that further measures to curb the impact of alcohol would be implemented.

Gauteng, which currently has the highest number of active confirmed Covid-19 cases, is under serious pressure with the province’s peak edging closer.

Both premier David Makhura and health MEC Bandile Masuku are calling for tougher restrictions similar to those seen in the earlier days of the nationwide lockdown.

In particular, the provincial government says it will look to tinker with local alcohol regulations – a matter that is within the jurisdiction of the province – in order to free up much-needed hospital beds that are currently occupied by alcohol-related injuries.

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