UNLIKE countries like South Africa and even Greenland, the Philippines is not technically under a total liquor ban during this COVID-19 crisis. However, it feels like it is. When President Duterte imposed the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ, or a nicer way of saying “lockdown”) for Luzon on March 16 amid the threat of the pandemic, the actual guidelines do not include a call for a total liquor ban.
But many Local Government Units (LGUs) have enacted local ordinances to carry out liquor bans. And like dominoes, provinces and Metro Manila cities follow.
While Visayas and Mindanao were not included in the quarantine, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, the designated spokesperson of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management for the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), said these regions outside of Luzon can also impose ECQ as necessary. And, sure enough, almost every province implemented their own ECQ following the same guidelines as announced for Luzon. Almost immediately after the ECQ announcement, the Cebu City government imposed a liquor ban on March 16.
In Metro Manila, liquor bans were not immediately imposed. But it took just a week or after the ECQ was implemented for some of the capital region’s 17 cities to tighten things up. Mandaluyong and Parañaque were among the earliest cities to enforce liquor bans, making their announcements on March 23. They were followed soon by Quezon City, Pasig, and Valenzuela. By the end of March, almost every city — except Makati, Taguig, Malabon, Marikina, Navotas, and Pasay — were implementing liquor bans. But Marikina, Navotas, and Pasay caved in eventually by April. By mid-April, cities nationwide — from Baguio, Legazpi, and Cebu, to Bacolod, Davao, and Cagayan de Oro — were all under liquor bans, easily covering 95% of our population in my humble estimate. This is a bit weird given that even our Muslim neighboring countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, both also in the midst of combating COVID-19, have not imposed liquor bans.
LIQUOR BAN JUSTIFICATION
When a country like South Africa, which is among the top 10 wine producing countries in the world, imposed a liquor ban on its populace during this COVID-19 crisis, something must be really crucial to make this tough decision. Even South African Breweries (SAB), owned by the multinational Anheuser-Busch InBev group (of Budweiser and Michelob), which enjoyed a San Miguel-like beer monopoly in South Africa, ceased operations during this liquor ban. Beer is the overwhelming preferred liquor in the country, followed by wine. Thousands of jobs, and of course the drinking lifestyles, were affected by the ban considering that South Africa is also among the world’s highest per capita consumer of liquor. South African research showed that a significant percentage of these liquor consumers are known to be binge drinkers and severe alcoholics.
President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the outbreak of COVID-19 in South Africa as a State of National Disaster by early March and then a lockdown, which included a liquor ban, by March 27. Many of the reasons cited were health- and social distancing-related, like consumption of liquor affects one’s immune system, and that alcohol reduces a person’s ability to exercise social distancing and follow the personal hygiene measures necessary to limit the spread of person to person virus transmission.
But a more convincing argument being emphasized, especially by healthcare workers, is that hospitals normally have to attend to liquor-related abuses, including car accidents, domestic violence, stabbings, gunshots, and alcohol poisoning. With an alcohol ban, the emergency rooms freed up at least 25% of their capacity that were otherwise given to liquor-related victims. While I do not see this as being the case in the Philippines, if we at all have statics similar to the South African finding, one thing is for sure, our health care is also very vulnerable as that of South Africa is, and every hospital bed and every health care personnel should be attending to COVID-19 and other health emergencies, and not those induced by liquor.
REQUEST TO LIFT LIQUOR RESTRICTIONS
There are liquor bans and there is liquor restriction. The latter is more serious as manufacturing plants of non-essential products, among which liquor products have been classified, have to shut down too. The tiny window of liquor commerce in Taguig, Makati, and Malabon, can dry up soon if no new liquor production nor new liquor importation come through from the strict restrictions during this ECQ.
The problem with this window is it allows those with liquor businesses based in Makati, Taguig and perhaps in Malabon to continue to thrive, almost unfairly against all the other companies based in cities outside of these three outliers. Actually many of these traders are selling off their oldest inventory at good margins given the lack of competition from other cities and other traders.
I am also not surprised that many people attempt to cross city borders to buy liquor, or use Lalamove or Grab to do this maneuver. Finally, I am even tempted to say it appeared elitist that Makati and Taguig, arguably the two most expensive local cities to live in, have no liquor bans. I strongly believe that if any of these three cities can discipline themselves when it comes to liquor abuse during ECQ, then all cities could do so too.
But now, the liquor manufacturers are also crying for help. It took a month after the ECQ was imposed before the Center for Alcohol Research and Development (CARD) Foundation Inc., whose members are composed of the largest liquor companies in the country, from Ginebra San Miguel and Emperador Distillers to the Lucio Tan Group, sent a letter, dated April 16 to Secretary Ramon Lopez of the Department of Trade Industry requesting for the lifting of liquor restrictions, including liquor bans. As CARD Chairman Gerard Tee eloquently explained in his two-page letter and I quote here from his second to the last paragraph: “As already said, the Alcohol Beverage Industry bears already the agony of declining market demand due to the imposition of high excise taxes on alcohol. We are pleading to let us thrive as a business, by allowing our products to exist in the market, with the same freedom of trade given to other goods and products. We plead that you take into consideration the plight of our workers and the benefit that our industry provides to our nation’s economy. It bears stressing, even with pain of being called redundant, that the sale of our alcoholic beverages is not an illegal undertaking, not deserving of the prohibition and total ban imposed by the Government. Allow us a means to survive amidst the already difficult situation we are in.”
Just last January, Republic Act 11467 was signed by President Rodrigo Duterte, raising excise taxes on liquor products. While the business argument will always be a very strong case, as a regular responsible drinker, I feel that alcohol consumption can really calm the nerves, especially when we are dealing with so much stress (social and financial) and a lot of uncertainty. In the US, liquor sales were up in high double-digits during the last week of March.
Unfortunately, like in the case of South Africa’s liquor ban concerns, there will be Filipinos who will abuse alcohol and break ECQ protocols, and thus the worry is really warranted.
MODEST SUGGESTION ON HOW WE LIFT THE LIQUOR BAN
When I read the news that the Philippine National Police declared that the crime rate in the country has gone down over 50% since the ECQ, the statistics included cities with and without liquor bans. I do not think crime reduction was any different in Makati than in Quezon City, which means the ECQ works to deter crime, and may have nothing to do with alcohol. The key is for responsible alcohol consumption. As mentioned also in the CARD Foundation letter to the DTI, and I quote another portion which summed up my belief: “… alcohol consumption can be taken in moderation by responsible individuals of the society who are accustomed to drinking alcohol.”
In the same letter, CARD actually suggested a Partial Ban on Sale and Purchase of Alcoholic Beverages, which CARD equated to a ‘restriction of time that alcohol can be sold.’ I agree with this, but I want to add another equally important provision, a limit to alcohol purchases. It can be likened to airline duty free restrictions of ONLY two bottles of liquor, or only 1.5 liters of alcohol. The time restriction, say from noon to 4 p.m., plus a 1.5L total purchase ceiling per ECQ pass holder, would probably make more sense initially. But this one, if approved, should be implemented in all cities, including Makati, Taguig and Malabon. Again, for fairness and equality, all cities should follow the same rules and guidelines.
The author is a member of the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers (CWW). For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, wine consultancy and other wine related concerns, please e-mail him at email@example.com.