The Pandemic's Killer Partner: Bootleg Booze - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Bootleg alcohol consumption and robberies at liquor stores reflect other impacts of the pandemic.

By Pallabi Munsi

The coronavirus has claimed more than 170,000 lives worldwide, but in Iran, one of the worst-hit countries, there’s a second epidemic brewing.

At least 300 people have died and 1,000 have fallen sick in recent weeks in the Sharia-ruled country after consuming methanol, a solvent also known as wood alcohol. It’s a strange problem for a nation where alcohol is banned, and drinking it — albeit bootleggers do exist — can invite flogging. In these cases, though, there was a very specific reason the victims drank methanol: fake news on social media suggesting that alcohol can ward off or cure COVID-19. “Other countries have only one problem, which is the new coronavirus pandemic,” Hossein Hassanian, an adviser to Iran’s health ministry, told the Associated Press in March. 

But Hassanian was wrong. Iran wasn’t alone. The pandemic sweeping the world is leaving a second trail of death in its wake, fueled by fake news and bootleg booze. In Turkey, 30 people have died and 20 have been hospitalized in the past three weeks after consuming pure ethanol — the untreated, undiluted alcoholic component of liquor. Officials have said the victims rubbed ethanol on their bodies before gulping the rest down in the belief this would protect them from the coronavirus.

The spread of illicit liquor has become rampant.

Anantha Krishnan, excise commissioner of the Indian state of Kerala

In India, meanwhile, a national lockdown to enforce social distancing has also shut down liquor stores. This has pushed some addicts toward spurious bootleg drinks, often with fatal consequences. A total of 26 people — including at least seven each in the states of Kerala and Karnataka — have committed suicide, unable to deal with withdrawal symptoms, officials say.

“The spread of illicit liquor has become rampant — and we are focusing on catching illegal liquor brewers,” says Kerala’s excise commissioner, Anantha Krishnan.

The deaths from the consumption of homemade alcohol or alcoholic chemicals like methanol and ethanol contrast sharply with the experience of Western countries, where there’s growing evidence of people stocking up on liquor for periods of stay-at-home restrictions. Thailand too witnessed lengthy queues outside liquor stores last week ahead of a lockdown.

That’s worrying medical experts as well: In the U.S., the U.K. and other European countries, they have warned that excessive alcohol consumption can reduce a person’s resistance to the coronavirus.

In Iran, Turkey and India, though, that advice is coming too late for many people, who thought the exact opposite was true, especially since it was peddled on social messaging apps as sourced from medical professionals.

“It is dangerous that such floating fake news nowadays are coming in the name of … people who are in the health care profession,” says Aneel Advani, associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, police have seized 4,200 liters of methanol from a man who was reportedly planning to make toxic hand sanitizers. Such instances are worrying health experts enough to make top medical schools and research institutions pivot to issuing public advisories.

“Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not kill viruses that have already entered your body,” the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says on its website in a bid to bust these myths. “Spraying such substances can be harmful to clothes or mucous membranes (i.e., eyes, mouth). Be aware that both alcohol and chlorine can be useful to disinfect surfaces, but they need to be used under appropriate recommendations.”

But there’s something more that can compound the challenge already presented by fake news, suggests Professor Metin Başoğlu of DABATEM, an Istanbul-based behavior research and therapy institution. “People may engage in unusual or seemingly irrational behaviors out of an intense sense of helplessness and a desperate attempt to gain some sense of control over a life-threatening situation,” he says.

In India, the instances of suicides and deaths from the consumption of bootleg liquor are prompting industry and public figures to seek a rethink from the federal and state governments. For sure, spurious liquor is not a new problem, points out Krishnan. But as veteran Bollywood actor Rishi Kapoor argued in a tweet recently, keeping liquor stores closed is robbing state governments of much-needed tax revenue at a time when the economy is already struggling — without doing anything to stop bootleggers.

Medical professionals, on the other hand, suggest caution. “The way forward is not to supply them alcohol but to get them into de-addiction therapy,” says Dr. Abhay Bang, community health and de-addiction specialist.

The Confederation of Indian Alcoholic Beverage Companies, a network of the country’s top liquor firms, has written to 10 states, urging them to allow sale of alcoholic beverages. It’s cited the sale of illicit and spurious liquor and losses to the exchequer.

But even when governments appear willing to demonstrate flexibility, they’re finding courts hard to convince. The Kerala high court, for instance, struck down a proposal from the state government to deliver alcohol to those addicted if they can provide a prescription from a therapist, says Krishnan. 

The good news? Some patients are going to hospitals where they can be treated for their alcohol addiction. The Institute of Mental Health in Hyderabad has seen several hundred patients come in since late March. Doctors at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, India’s top public sector hospital, are now producing videos to help addicts deal with the crisis.

But burglaries at liquor stores are on the rise too in India and South Africa — countries with particularly strict lockdowns where almost all businesses are barred from operating.

So even if bootlegging is curbed by strict measures, we might see a new problem — that of increasing crime by the alcohol-dependent amid lockdowns. Governments around the world — already overwhelmed by the fight against the virus — had better watch out.

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