By Denis Jjuuko
In the 1980s and 1990s, the HIV/AIDS scourge caused havoc across the country, wiping out villages of mostly adults. Almost all families in Uganda were affected leaving many child-headed homes. When Uganda sent soldiers to Cuba for training, it is rumored that Fidel Castro called President Yoweri Museveni and told him that he doesn’t have an army. The majority of the soldiers taken for training had been screened for HIV/AIDS on arrival in Cuba and found positive. A country smarting itself out of a protracted war decided to act. HIV/AIDS also was to impact the president’s stay in power. Awareness campaigns were started to eliminate it, condoms among other measures were promoted, and with advancements in treatment, HIV/AIDS to a certain extent was controlled. Although it is still a big problem, at least it is not to the 1980s/1990s levels.
What HIV/AIDS did to Uganda’s population in the 1980s and 1990s is today being replicated by alcohol cheaply sold mainly in sachets. A lot of young people today wake up to sachets of gins. I spend parts of my working hours in the informal sector and a lot of people come to work with sachets or take them during the day as they go about their work.
Sometime back I decided to pay informal workers midweek to reduce the burden of paying a huge amount over the weekend. The following day, the majority of the workers didn’t turn up for work. When I asked their supervisor, he said it was my problem. “You decided to pay them midweek. Right now, they all drunk,” he said. He advised that I always pay on Saturday so they drink the whole of Saturday night, partly recover on Sunday and be broke enough to work on Monday. So people are working for cheap alcohol and nothing else.
If your car gets a mechanical problem, the guys who will most likely come to rescue you will be holding sachets. As they remove the affected part such as a deflated tyre, they will be having a sachet in their mouth. If you go for burial, you will be accosted by people asking you for money as little as Shs500 to buy themselves alcohol. If you spent your festive season holidays in a village, you must have experienced this first hand.
Cheap alcohol isn’t limited to informal workers and the uneducated. Some people in your fancy office may be coming with sachets hidden in their jackets. Once you turn your eye away, they sip some of it. Some of the people killing themselves with alcohol are very brilliant and hardworking. Of course, once most employers realize that one has an “alcoholic problem”, they terminate the contract. In the informal sector where such contracts don’t exist, people sometimes aren’t fired. The supervisors care less as long as what they wanted the person to do is done. Families sometimes resort to prayers hoping that things will change. Others simply give up.
As a country, there is need to create awareness about the dangers of cheap alcohol and tackle it with the same vigor that was once used with HIV/AIDS. We can’t leave it to major alcohol makers who have limited their campaigns to mainly two things: warning people that alcohol is not for sale to people under the age of 18 (without any control whatsoever on who buys) and drunk driving. The majority of people suffering from alcoholism are of age and don’t even drive. They don’t even consume alcohol that these big players make anyway. They are on some gins with all sorts of flowery advertising. The adverts I listen to on some radio stations even promise sexual prowess if one consumed their brands! Others claim you won’t have a hangover so just drink as much as you want any time. Some NGOs are doing something but they can only do so much. The country must wake up and do something.
All alcohol makers should agree to a code of conduct to only promote responsible drinking. Media houses should also not just accept any advert that is paid for — rather adhere to a code of conduct that the adverts will also promote responsible drinking. Some of the taxes that alcohol makers pay should directly fund campaigns that inform people of the dangers of irresponsible drinking as well as pay for professionals running alcohol units (rehabs) in public hospitals. Actually, all public hospitals at a certain level (say regional referral hospital) should have an alcohol unit where people can seek professional help.
And perhaps alcohol sold in sachets should be of a certain quality. For example, the country through the Bureau of standards can set a standard of acceptable alcoholic content by volume per each milliliter so that competition is not only based on who makes a brand that is the most potent. The current standards aren’t working in the best interest of our country.
The writer is a communication and visibility consultant.