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Punch-drunk liquor industry staggers again

MBONGENI MGUNI
Punch-drunk liquor industry staggers again
Despite authoritative sources within the industry hinting that trade could return within two weeks, the stop-start year the alcohol industry has endured has left it punch-drunk and on the ropes. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI writes

It’s not only boxers who know the pain of taking heavy blows, mounting the courage to get up, then taking even more to send you to the ropes. The alcohol industry, a sector employing about 60,000 people directly and indirectly, has had a year which feels like any one of Mike Tyson’s challengers during his rampaging dominance in the 1990s.

Since the first COVID-19 case was reported in the country on March 30, the liquor industry has taken blows, gone to the Ministry for relief, then taken more blows. Health authorities have identified liquor trade as one of several potential “superspreaders” of the virus, or sectors/activities that have the potential to disseminate the dreaded virus at a large, uncontrollable scale.

The others are weddings, funerals and churches, large gatherings where even one undetected case could rapidly spread and from where people disperse to various places, making contact tracing near impossible. Which is why each fresh lockdown has come with tightened restrictions on gatherings such as weddings and funerals and the suspension of liquor trade. It’s one thing to know the logic behind the suspensions of trade. It is quite another to experience three booze bans in the space of five months, each rendering thousands instantly unemployed, disrupting lifestyles and upending value chains that trickle down from the production belts at Kubu Road, to the middle-aged woman selling sweets and airtime on a rickety table outside any typical watering hole in the country.

Increasingly frustrated liquor industry stakeholders and the consumers who have been forced into black market or homebrewing activities, have been demanding to see the science behind the booze bans. And this week, the Scientific Advisor to the COVID-19 Task Force obliged although his arguments have since sparked more argument than understanding. “Compelling evidence from law enforcement agencies reveals that since some neighbouring countries have banned the sale of alcohol, there has been a surge in illegal cross-border shopping,” Dr Mogomotsi Matshaba was quoted as saying by government’s COVID-19 bulletin.

“The act is a threat as those illegal border jumpers might be carrying the virus.

“Alcohol consumption is likely to increase the health risks if a person becomes infected with the virus.” Matshaba also said alcohol abusers who wind up in hospital could weigh on the availability of services and equipment for COVID-19 patients and that alcohol consumers disregard protocols put in place to contain the virus. Critics of the ban say police have yet to report a single case of alcohol smuggling and there has been no indication from law enforcement of any “increase” in cross border alcohol smuggling.

No suspected or probable cases in Greater Gaborone or elsewhere have been tracked back to drinking and in fact, for the most part, authorities agree that consumers of alcohol and the outlets that serve them, have largely obeyed the call to adhere to Covid protocols. As for alcohol and health, critics say the fact that

Botswana is one of only four countries around the world that have banned liquor as a response to COVID-19, speaks louder than words. Health authorities agree that problems only arise in the case of abuse, where consumption exceeds 14 units a day, but even in high consumption countries in Europe, citizens there have been trusted to drink responsibly.“The argument that alcohol abusers will overwhelm the health system and deny Covid cases

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beds doesn’t hold water in Botswana, just going by the evidence of the periods when trade was allowed in recent months,” Gilbert Seboni, a Mmegi reader and social commentator says. “Neither the trade minister, nor the health minister or the Covid task team ever said they were seeing beds going towards alcohol cases, after they lifted the ban in May. “The major push is obviously to imitate South Africa but that country is quite evidently very different in national behaviour than us.”

Business Botswana, the largest private sector lobby group and government’s official economic partner, appears to be getting fed up. The organisation has previously expressed frustration that while it had sealed agreements with the Trade Ministry on alcohol trade resumption, higher platforms of Cabinet had thrown these out. This week, Business Botswana appeared hard pressed to hide its exasperation. “During the first lockdown, the industry is estimated to have lost in excess of P40 million due to expired products which could not be sold,” the group said in a statement on Monday.

“However, despite demanding facts that would lead to the ban, these were not provided and what was shared was not convincing. “Business Botswana vehemently opposes the ban.” The Botswana Alcohol Industry Association (BAIA) which represents the major liquor traders, takes the approach of dialogue with government on the ban and says while it appreciates that the ban is designed to “isolate and contain” the virus while the pandemic is brought under control, the stop-start patterns over the months has left the industry in tatters.

The liquor traders and Business Botswana met with the Trade Ministry on Tuesday and BAIA chair, Mothusi Molokomme says common ground was found.

“Government sees that wholesalers, retailers and other outlets are generally complying and in fact there has not been single complaint against the businesses,” he says. “The trouble is on the side of some consumers, like those drinking at the car washes, which is why we as an Association have pledged to strengthen our awareness and education campaigns in order to change behaviours.

“We will be engaging the police, whom we have a good relationship with already, to see how to help with compliance and we also think at district council level, the commercial officers have a role to play in revoking the licences of those who do not comply.

“Going forward, we are thinking maybe strictly takeaway as a start, which will affect restaurants, but we must understand that we need some level of business to be taking place, instead of the stop-start approach.” The ball, liquor traders say, is in the consumers’ court. Just a few bad apples will spoil the bunch. “People are used to going out and doing whatever, but the message from Health is to stay at home and at individual level, we must all understand the impact of non-compliance,” says Molokomme.

“At least one in three people in Botswana have a direct or indirect connection to the liquor industry through family members employed. “It’s about individual responsibility and these family members. “We should be adhering so that we go beyond talking about alcohol and move onto how to help other industries.”

Reports indicate the liquor trade could resume in about two weeks at the most. The liquor traders say when that happens, their message is: ‘don’t spoil it for others’.



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