Thursday, October 29, 2020

Bars going mobile and operating 24/7

The restriction of liquor trade has spawned an ambiguous and legally problematic business model that has essentially eliminated “air lock” in imbibers.

Fashioning itself as a delivery service and not liquor trade, this model takes the form of some enterprising people selling alcohol round the clock on the margins of the law. Customers place orders for alcohol – in some cases paying online, and the alcohol is delivered to their doorstep. This is almost exactly what Debonairs does with its pizza delivery service. “Almost exactly” because while Debonairs closes at 10 p.m., some in the online alcohol delivery service operates round the clock.

In terms of the law, liquor trade can only happen from Thursday to Saturday and within limited hours. On the other hand, the online alcohol delivery doesn’t place such limitations on itself because some services operate every day. What makes this possible is that this service is not regulated and a senior police officer says that the police don’t even know how to police it.

It would seem that the current alcohol delivery service has been perfected from a business model that goes back to 2016 when former Botswana Defence Force commander, Lieutenant General Ian Khama, was still president. The stringent Liquor Act, which was basically based on liquor trade on army barracks, went into effect on the very day that Khama was sworn in.

At least from what our research shows, this service goes back to at least 2016 when Whiskey Delivery started a “24 hour whiskey delivery service” in Gaborone. A February 12, 2016 post says the following: “Get yourself a 1L bottle of Jameson or Jack Daniels a 750ML of Jonnie walker and have it delivered to you anywhere you are anytime of the day or night ..” Whiskey Delivery described itself this way: “A 24 hours Whisky delivery wherever you are in Gaborone and surrounding areas .. we are just a call away with reasonable prices we offer a wide range of 1st class whiskys only.” A week later, the administrator posted: “Out of stock … Call [cell number] for tomorrow s order free delivery anytime anywhere.” There was also a short-lived delivery service that called itself “Alcohol Delivery” on Facebook, provided “night shift alcohol delivery from 10 pm to 6am.” 

The alcohol delivery service is a double-edged sword. There can be no denying that delivering alcohol to a lot of people who would otherwise have had to go to a bar and bottle store has public health benefits. One of the health guidelines issued by the WHO and actively retailed by the Presidential COVID-19 Taskforce is social distancing. Theoretically, this service enables drinkers to stay home and thus lessen interaction that is known to spread the virus. As a matter of fact, the Botswana Alcohol Industry Association, which lobbied for the re-opening of liquor trade, is behind a campaign to encourage alcohol consumers to consume alcohol at home as a way of containing spread. In this regard, the alcohol delivery service is complementary to effort to fight COVID-19.

There can also be no doubt that the alcohol delivery service is part of the supply chain of what the Coordinator of the Taskforce, Dr. Kereng Masupu, has referred to as “di-chillas” (“chilling” sessions, meaning house parties) on Btv. As Masupu consistently laments, “di-chillas” are driving up the infection rate because merrymakers understandably throw caution to the four winds. 

The police (who have a nationwide intelligence infrastructure set up over a century ago) are aware that some companies in the alcohol delivery service are operating outside of what the law permits. For now, their inaction amounts to a wink and a nod. 

Another liquor trade model that has sprung up courtesy of COVID-19 restrictions is of the mobile shebeen that plies its trade at the parking lots of shopping centres with bars. This trade happens after those bars have closed down or on days (Sunday to Wednesday) that they don’t operate. Numerous such mobile shebeens have sprung up at the Gaborone West shops, which have always been a hub of nocturnal activity. The shebeen kings and queens who sell alcohol from car boots came up with a very simple solution to an electronic law enforcement effort. 

Last year, the Botswana Police Service installed surveillance cameras on city streets with the most law enforcement challenges. Among them is one at the G-West shops that has long served as Botswana’s busiest red-light district. The cameras were installed to discourage sex trade and nab those trading their bodies. Rather park mobile shebeens along this street, the shebeen kings and queens instead use an adjoining side street which is out of the range of the surveillance cameras. 

If nothing else, the public health challenge occasioned by liquor trade (both legal, illegal and somewhere in between) attests to the fact that democracy is virtually useless in the fight against the deadliest pandemic in a century. The re-opening of limited liquor trade occurred within the context of a protracted democratic process geared towards balancing the commercial interests of liquor traders with the public health interests of the nation. No such consideration would have been made in autocratic countries like China, North Korea and Rwanda – which have contained spread of the disease and are well on the way to eliminating it. 

Ironically, there are Batswana who feel that with his Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS) playing a leading role, former President Khama would have been able to handle COVID-19 much better than President Mokgweetsi Masisi is able to. While he is now self-styling himself as a democrat post-office, Khama had autocratic tendencies and under him, DIS played a larger and more intrusive role in public life. The rate at which mask-wearing law is broken is tragically high but it is hard to imagine that happening under Khama because his DIS would have publicly and dramatically nipped the problem in the bud. Under Khama, police shut down “di-chillas” and these merry-making sessions would not have been a source of the virus. Resultantly, Botswana would have far fewer COVID-19 cases.  

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