British tourist John Packer watches a waiter pour his beer at a restaurant in the resort town of Kovalam in Kerala state in September 2014. Alcohol has become unavailable during the Covid-19 lockdown, forcing six men to end their lives. (Photo: STR/AFP)
After six people died for want of alcohol during the Covid-19 lockdown, the Kerala government has decided to ration liquor to addicts on medical advice, a move opposed by church officials and the medical fraternity.
All non-essential shops, including state-controlled alcohol outlets, were closed without notice on March 25 after India imposed a 21-day countrywide lockdown aiming to check the spread of Covid-19 infections caused by the coronavirus.
In the six days leading up to March 30, Kerala recorded only two deaths from Covid-19 but at least six deaths from non-availability of alcohol, forcing Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to direct the state excise department to release liquor to alcoholics on medical prescription.
"We cannot accept allowing liquor on medical prescription to alcoholics. This is not the right decision," said Bishop Yoohanon Mar Theodosius of Muvattupuzha, who heads the anti-liquor council of Catholic bishops in the southern state.
Bishop Theodosius said the state government has "efficiently and with determination" worked to protect people from the viral infection. But this decision to issue alcohol to addicts could not be appreciated, he said.
Most alcohol-related deaths are reported to be suicides of addicts who either hanged themselves inside rooms or jumped out of buildings. One young man died after he consumed shaving lotion, reportedly out of desperation to have a drink.
However, the decision to provide alcohol to addicts "will not do any good to anybody, rather it will do more harm," Bishop Theodosius told UCA News. He wanted the government to reconsider the decision "for the larger interest of the people."
"Liquor is not a medicine. We cannot correct a wrong with another wrong," the prelate asserted.
"Moreover, it has become a lost opportunity for the state to identify all alcohol addicts and get them the medical help they need. The lockdown period still offers a chance to help such people.
"The Catholic Church has offered its health facilities for the government in the fight against Covid-19. The Church has several de-addiction centers too. The centers are ready to welcome addicts. The government only needs to allow volunteers to take them to our centers. We will take care of them."
The Kerala chapter of the Indian Medical Association also urged the government to reconsider its decision, saying it was unethical for doctors to prescribe alcohol as medicine.
"Making a doctor recommend alcohol to a person is not ethical," it said in a letter to the chief minister appealing for him to reconsider the decision. "Alcohol withdrawal can be managed successfully using medications."
The medical fraternity holds the view that doctors can only prescribe medicine and that alcohol cannot be considered a medicine. Moreover, such a move will be sending a wrong message that alcohol addiction can be treated with alcohol, it said.
The southern coastal state of 33 million people has the highest per capita alcohol consumption in India. Each Keralite drinks an average of eight liters of alcohol a year, some two liters more than the national average.
"The coronavirus might be killing a person in a family but alcohol destroys the family of the addicts. That's why it needs treatment," Bishop Theodosius said.
Kerala had reported 234 of India's 1,347 Covid-19 positive cases on March 31. Kerala has recorded two deaths, while 43 people have succumbed to the disease across India.