KAMPALA — Since the beginning of the 2020 the world is grappling with Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Uganda has not been spared.
As of today Uganda has registered over 1,200 infections. Formally, 12 deaths directly linked to COVID-19 have been reported by Ministry of Health (MoH) while several hundreds of people have died indirectly as a consequence of the novel virus.
“Our social-economic systems have been greatly destabilised and it is both important and urgent to focus on measures to mitigate harm and cause speedy recovery from the devastating effects of COVID-19,” says Dr. David Kalema, the chairperson
Uganda Alcohol Policy Alliance (UAPA).
He adds that Alcohol is known to weaken the immune and recovery systems of people and societies against COVID-19.
Possibly in recognition of this fact, Dr. Kalema notes, a significant proportion of the presidential directives on prevention and management of COVID -19 that were issued between March and June 2020 meant to directly impact on the trade and consumption of alcohol.
In his maiden speech on COVID-19, President Museveni rightly recognised alcohol as a major risk factor that potentially aids the spread of COVID-19.
Between April and June 2020, UAPA conducted a rapid survey to monitor alcohol control measures in COVID-19 period and the extent to which the presidential directives during the lock down reduced alcohol related harm. In total, the study covered 70 leaders from 15 districts randomly selected from the four regions of Uganda. The survey was qualitative using interview/observation methods in communities where UAPA members operate and was conducted following MoH standard operating procedures (SoP) of social distancing; using phone calls, virtual platforms such as zoom, WhatsApp and skype.
A few physical interactions were held with the Members of Parliament. Other informants included media personnel, religious leaders and District/Sub county leaders involved in enforcement of the directives.
While phase one marked the initial intervention characterized by total lock down with a ban on public and private transport and closure of all activities except essential services; in phase two of the lock down there was gradual opening of private transport and selected services. Finally, phase three of the lockdown is characterized by the gradual of private transport and public transport and a variety of business enterprises while other non-essential sectors and those capable of bringing together large gatherings remained closed.
He says respondents were aware of all the directives and observed that the measures would have been sufficient to prevent alcohol abuse but were most effective in the first phase.
Alcohol use during the first phase of the lockdown seems to have reduced especially in urban areas as some people relocated from towns to villages to support their families with agricultural work. Decline in alcohol abuse in the initial period of the lockdown was essentially attributed to strict surveillance as many offenders from all over Uganda were arrested and charged in courts of law.
To a very large extent, they observed extreme laxity in surveillance and enforcement especially in phase two and three of the lockdown. Disregarding the
Presidential guidelines enabled acts of alcohol abuse at all stages of the lockdown. To efficiently enforce their lockdown some countries such as India, South Africa and of late Kenya have taken strict measure against alcohol. However in Uganda, it is almost the usual business for alcohol industries and alcohol outlets as they remain operational.
Kalema adds that alcohol production, trade and consumption remained legal throughout the different stages of the lockdown. The alcohol industry took advantage of the sanitising benefits of alcohol to promote their products. In places where movement of trucks was restricted the bodaboda motorcyclist became handy doing door to door deliveries. Beer depots remained operational and shops have continued to openly sell alcohol and allow many on-premise use. Alcohol adverts were not stopped and online alcohol exposures increased.
Of late, young people are seen on social media posing with alcohol in bars and in other social events. In spite of the ban, many bars remain operational as owners simply put off music and lock their customers inside their premises defying the protocol of social distancing and endangering its patrons.
The statement further indicates that the study found that some liquor retailers promoted stockpiling of alcohol and thus heavy drinking while in quarantine at home. In rural areas people buy alcohol and consume it from unexpected places such as forests, banana/coffee plantations in order to avoid surveillance teams.
He notes that as a result of the above lapses, more people reported negative consequences of alcohol such as increased Gender Based Violence resulting into family unrest, injuries and deaths. In some sections fatalities resulting from acute alcohol poisoning were reported as people with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUDs) suffering withdrawals did not have guidance on where to seek assistance.
He adds that as civil society, we need government support to continue playing their role by educating the masses about dangers of alcohol in the COVID-19 and beyond (E.g. Tumuzizike ekuuli production), provide relief services to vulnerable populations and offer treatment services to those affected by alcohol Use Disorder.
They also call upon government to step up the surveillance and implementation of the presidential directives, to expand current initiatives for treatment of Alcohol Use Disorders and explore alternative economic support activities for alcohol dealers especially in the informal sector.
“We appeal to all leaders and politicians not to use alcohol as a campaign tool and to be alert to all alcohol harm in their communities. We call upon parents to show a good example to their children in this time and not introduce them to alcohol use. In the absence of media guidelines on alcohol we call upon the media fraternity to be responsible while marketing alcoholic products,” notes Kalema.