Shebeens – The weakest link?

The strength of any chain to protect the nation against the pandemic lies in its weakest link. The restrictive regulations on shebeens and bars vs. the lighter touch for restaurants, casinos, nightclubs and hotels are classist and ineffective in curbing the spread of the pandemic.

Shebeens are banned from onsite alcohol sales because their clients supposedly have a higher risk of spreading Covid as they will not follow pandemic social gathering regulations. Restaurants, hotels, casinos, and nightclubs are permitted to consume alcohol on site, supposing they will follow social gathering regulations. We remain unconvinced that this assumption holds. We are uncertain that the science used around the world supports our government’s surmise in this case.

Health Minister Kalumbi Shangula, working under tremendous pressure as he shepherds the nation through this health disaster, is de facto pointing a finger of blame at bars and shebeens.

It can be argued that national and local governments have been in a regulatory tug-of-war with local bars and shebeens for many years. Neighbours complain about noise, crime, and their gardens being used as toilets by shebeen patrons. That the informal drinking spots are in the middle of residential sections will always be a problem. Living next door to a raucous drinking establishment is thankless. The police have stated on past occasions that reducing the number of shebeens or severely limiting their hours of operation would decrease neighborhood crime. Is Covid being used as a convenient smokescreen to tackle these perennial problems now? It is easy to put emergency regulations in place that are inconvenient to the public but bring smiles to authorities charged with oversight and control. Then, when people get used to their rights being curtailed, the government quietly leaves the restrictions in place even when the emergency subsides.

We await statistics proving that shebeen clients will not follow state Covid restrictions when imbibing on the premises of drinking spots while people drinking in other places will. Obviously, one cannot drink or eat with a mask on whether in a restaurant, hotel or shebeen. Masks do come on and off in such places, regardless of clientele. In most places globally, masks for the unvaccinated in restaurants are required only for entry/exit or the toilet or when they are being served. Otherwise, masks are not required.

The regulations prohibiting onsite alcohol consumption in shebeens are arguably a classist action. It disproportionately affects the majority population and small business owners located in lower-income communities. These clients have no money to go to restaurants, hotels, or casinos to drink socially. In addition, the closing time restrictions are unfair as they shut down shebeens before many potential customers arrive home from work.

The tourists that enter could bring Covid variants with them when they arrive and affect the staff serving them, and yet, they are allowed to drink in house while local people are treated as ticking time bombs and sent home to drink. When protests about these Covid restrictions erupt, the reason for the decision is laid at the feet of the pandemic rather than acknowledged as a potential way of clandestinely suppressing shebeens.

Covid restrictions must be applied to all or none. Drinking in a casino or restaurant is the same as drinking in a shebeen and carries some level of Covid infection risk. The difference in the regulations currently applied seems to lie in who is doing the drinking.

The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Tourists must not be allowed to enter unless they are fully vaccinated. Local people must be tested, get the vaccine, if possible, use social distancing, avoid crowds, sanitize their hands often, and wear masks. If they do not, the disease will rage over a more extended period, and more cases can be severe. The public is COVID tired. Still, everyone must remember that it takes one infected person in denial or hiding (or unaware of) their condition, going to any public gathering, and the disease spreads.

Government has its hands full trying to import enough vaccines (and booster shots) for all citizens who qualify for the injection. The authorities should not waste time, energy, or resources chasing which shebeen serves a beer in a bag and which fancy restaurant serves a mimosa in-house in a fluted glass. ALL places where people gather and can spread the disease must be limited or none. Strengthen every link in the chain, even those that affect the rich and powerful. Covid doesn’t make race or class distinctions; government pandemic regulations shouldn’t either.

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