“If we can create positive outcomes from this — I don’t want to get tearful — then we would have memorialized in a positive way all the people who’ve died,” said Anne Lusk, a nutrition researcher at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Controlling heavy drinking so fewer people get injured or die
To free up hospital beds for expected Covid-19 patient surges, authorities around the world canceled non-urgent surgeries and postponed other care services. South Africa, which has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Africa and the fifth-highest worldwide, went further: it banned alcohol and cigarette sales.
The rationale: free up hospital capacity and reduce crime levels.
During the sales bans — which stretched from March 27 and May 31, and again from mid-July to mid-August — emergency room admissions for traumas caused by car accidents or violence almost halved. While the decline in trauma injuries coming into ERs cannot be entirely linked to alcohol, the ban seems to have played a significant role in the drop, said Charles Parry, director of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit at the state-funded South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC).
Weekends are the busiest period for hospital trauma cases, and a survey of five South African hospitals found those cases dropped from an average 150 to 90 cases per weekend during the alcohol sales ban, highlighting the cost of alcohol-related trauma.
South Africans come in sixth in a global ranking of per person alcohol consumption. Drinkers consume an average of 65 milliliters of alcohol per day in the country — the equivalent of around six standard drinks (single shot of liquor, small glass of wine). That leads to violence, particularly against women, accidents and deaths.
The sales ban also had downsides. The hospitality industry lost jobs, and 20 people are thought to have died from drinking industrial alcohol.
Still, South Africa’s ruling ANC party is warming to policies that further control alcohol consumption. “I haven’t seen this in 25 years,” Parry said.
Cigarette sales restrictions — justified by the fact that coronavirus targets those with weakened lungs — has shown that higher tobacco prices and reduced availability can lead people either to quit or to smoke less, said Catherine Egbe, a tobacco specialist at the SAMRC. During the ban, cigarette packs were still illegally available in some places, but at a higher price than usual.
Around one-third of South Africans smoked tobacco products in 2017, according to the World Health Organization. Egbe hopes a stalled draft bill proposed in 2018 — which would ban smoking in public places and make cigarette packs less visually attractive — will now be revived.
South Africa isn’t the only country that’s tested such consumer restrictions during the pandemic. Neighboring Botswana imposed a cigarette sales ban during its lockdown, while India banned both alcohol and cigarette sales. Thailand and some areas in Mexico, the Philippines and Panama also banned alcohol sales.
Changing the mobility system so fewer people and animals die
In the car-dependent United States, one of the biggest coronavirus-adjacent health effects has been a drop in car accidents.
Across California, car crashes resulting in injury and death halved from about 400 to about 200 per day during the state’s lockdown, according to a report from the Road Ecology Center at the University of California, Davis.
In total, researchers attributed 15,000 fewer collisions per month and 6,000 fewer injury/fatal accidents per month to the state’s shelter-in-place order.
Fraser Shilling, one of the report’s authors, is now looking into how many animals may also have been saved during the pandemic. About 1 million animals are thought to be killed on U.S. roads each day.
He thinks more than 100 million animals could have been saved because of the pandemic lockdowns. Some human lives may have been saved, too: Car collisions with big animals are sometimes fatal for both parties.
“If we can learn from these experiences where we dial up and down human activity, we can have an incredible knowledge base for developing policies that are really based on how we impact our world and ourselves,” Shilling said.
Lusk, the Harvard scientist, hopes mobility will change permanently thanks to the pandemic. With some cities seeing an unprecedented increase in bicycle use — a 151 percent rise in Philadelphia in March, for example — authorities and real estate developers should start thinking about how to continue to encourage cycling in non-pandemic times, she said.
Wider bicycle paths or bike lanes to accommodate both e-bikers and regular bikes, as well as private bike parking spaces in new…