Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Ministry in charge of gambling is gambling with people’s lives

It would be mischievous to say that social-media entreaties and the countless pet-name variations of her first name caused the Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Peggy Serame, to re-open the liquor trade. What more likely happened behind the scenes was that the liquor industry launched a massive lobbying campaign that reached the Office of the President. There is no way in the world that liquor trade would have been re-opened without the consent of President Mokgweetsi Masisi but as a matter of administrative procedure, that decision had to be communicated through the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry. However, in re-opening this trade, the ministry in charge of gambling is also gambling with people’s lives.

The Presidential COVID-19 Taskforce would certainly have been consulted but that both its Coordinator, Dr. Kereng Masupu, and his deputy, Professor Mosepele Mosepele, have consistently spoken disapprovingly about house-party merrymaking (“dichillas”) strongly suggests that they are opposed to the re-opening of the liquor trade. And for very good reason: if the contravention of COVID-19 law was shockingly high when liquor-selling establishments were closed, it is unrealistic to expect such contravention to suddenly decrease when liquor trade was re-opened.

It would appear that a ministry that should know something about diamond trade because it has “trade” in its name was also sold the bottom of a Coke bottle that has been expertly shaped like a diamond. As part of its campaign to re-open trade, the liquor industry has been keen to stress that it would help effort to fight the pandemic. It actually managed to convince MITI that the impossible is possible: that doing liquor trade and fighting COVID-19 can happen at the same time. No less a person than Serame herself participated in the launch of a fantastical South African slang-themed campaign called “Di Nwele Dladleng.” The aim of the latter is to encourage alcohol consumers to purchase their liquor and consume it at their respective homes – which easily become the “dichillas” that leadership of the Presidential COVID-19 Taskforce complains about daily on Btv.

This has not been said about “dichillas” but they present a greater public health risk than bar-drinking and nightclubbing. It is possible for the police within a particular policing district to do the rounds in the district, hitting all the bars and nightclubs. However, it is impossible to do the same thing with house parties because there are so many of them and some happen indoors in a non-boisterous fashion – boisterous merry-makers are more likely to attract police attention. There is also a “dichillas” sub-category that is even harder to police – days-long merrymaking hosted at farms. The previous administration of Ian Khama didn’t quite ban alcohol but it introduced laws that made it unprofitable to do liquor trade and limited access to alcohol for consumers. As a way of circumventing the stringent requirements of the reworked Liquor Act, some deep-pocketed merrymakers began visiting their farms for the entire duration of Khama’s administration to live it up. It is almost certain that the infrastructure (personal, institutional, material, economic, social and complementary) that these merrymakers have put up will be refurbished in order to get around COVID-19 laws that make it difficult for them to party hard in towns and villages. 

The Botswana Alcohol Industry Association has unrealistic expectations about a police service that it knows is and has always been under-resourced. At the launch of the “Di Nwele Dladleng” campaign, its chairperson, Mothusi Molokomme, announced the launch of a whistle-blowing application that enables members of the public to report merrymakers who violate the COVID-19 laws to the police. Enforcement of COVID-19 laws is the responsibility of the police and on the basis of what Molokomme says, BAIA expects an already overstretched and under-resourced police service to take on additional workload emanating from violations of COVID-19 law.

The Botswana Police Service (BPS) has itself proved a weak link in the fight against COVID-19 because it is not tough enough on people who don’t wear masks or social distance appropriately. Appearing on Btv at the start of the second greater Gaborone zone lockdown, the BPS spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Dipheko Motube, said that they would no longer treat offenders with kid gloves. Offenders should never have been treated with kid gloves in the first place and doing so caused positive cases to increase.

Appearing on Btv last Thursday evening, Mosepele said that “dichillas” have resumed following the lifting of the temporary ban on liquor trade. Tellingly, he also revealed that one recent COVID-19 case is of someone who attended a merrymaking session. It has always been very clear that this was going to happen because this is the second time that the liquor trade has been shut down and re-opened this year. When trade was re-opened in June, some drinkers began forming non-social-distanced knots outside bars either maskless or inappropriately masked and engaging in full-throated banter – all three being conditions under which the virus spreads. This happened right up to the minute that the second lockdown in Greater Gaborone was imposed. It is unclear how the Ministry could have imagined that such conduct would change when trade was re-opened nine days ago.

While multi-faceted, the solution is a quite simple one: keeping bars closed. Nobody has ever died from not drinking alcohol – which is itself harmful to human health – but millions have died and are still dying from the virus. To be clear, liquor trade is not the only way through which the virus spreads but decreasing channels through which the virus is transmitted has saved lives. The liquor industry is right in saying that it should be allowed to trade but that should not be at the cost of human life. Some of the people who contract the virus at “dichillas” will die, not least because alcohol compromises the immune system.

As has been stressed in some parts of the world, re-opening some businesses prematurely is also not good for commerce itself because it can spark a huge new virus outbreak – which would make it impossible to do business. The proper approach is get rid of the virus first so that lockdowns are no longer needed or reduce the virus to a level where tracking and tracing can manage it. Botswana is not there yet and what MITI has done is gamble with human life. It knows exactly how liquor trade and consumption have impacted the fight against COVID-19. If it doesn’t know, then it can find out from the leadership of the Presidential COVID-19 Taskforce.

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