COVID-19, ‘Big Government’, and the Prohibition of Alcohol: Crisis as a Transnational Moment for Social Change
Ryosuke Yokoe | 29 May 2020
◇ Modern History | Economic History | Food History | Global History | Political History | Transnational History
Throughout history, crises have often led to enormous social and economic reform as policymakers are forced to come up with new ways to meet unexpected demands. As Walter Scheidel argues in his book, The Great Leveller (2017), mass violence has been the primary impetus for the decline of inequality throughout world history, most recently with the Second World War serving as a watershed in relation to increased government spending on social programmes in many of its participating states. Although a crisis of a very different nature, the current coronavirus pandemic has also brought about similar shifts, with governments running huge budget deficits to protect jobs and counteract the threat of a looming recession caused by travel restrictions and lockdowns.
We also witness cases where governments experiment with creative solutions to crises that stretch across borders, as is the case with the current global pandemic. For a variety of reasons, a small handful of countries have resorted to banning the sale of intoxicants. One of the most debated aspects of South Africa’s lockdown has been their prohibition on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes, intended to reduce hospital admissions and secure beds for COVID-19 patients. Admissions have dropped by two-thirds due to reductions in alcohol-related violence and accidents, but such draconian measures also meant the rise of black-market trade and the near-collapse of the country’s proud wine industry.
The sale of alcohol was also banned in the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten, a constituent country of the Netherlands, and in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, over its role in exacerbating incidents of domestic violence that came with the lockdown. In Thailand, the prohibition on alcohol was put in place to prevent the spread of the virus in social gatherings. In each setting, such policies were deemed drastic but necessary, carefully implemented for their advantages in tackling a variety of health concerns whilst also considering their clear downsides.
Although instituted under entirely different circumstances, the First World War was also a moment when similarly harsh controls were imposed on the sale of alcohol across the world. France and Russia were the first to institute bans on absinthe and vodka, respectively, due to concerns over their impact on wartime efficiency. Countries in which anti-alcohol temperance movements were already influential also implemented tough restrictions of varying degrees. Although the production and sale of alcohol had already been banned in different local jurisdictions in Canada and the United States, a national prohibition came into fruition in both countries due to the war. Alcohol was not banned in Britain, but the country nevertheless instituted far-reaching controls on the distribution of drink under the Central Control Board (CCB), established in 1915 to enforce higher beverage duties and shorter closing hours in pubs.
In almost every instance, it was the context of the war that spurred the move towards instituting these tough restrictions. Temperance activists in North America had been pushing for a national prohibition for decades, but the conditions of the war, such as the rise of anti-German sentiment directed towards German-American breweries such as Anheuser-Busch, brought the federal implementation of prohibition to the forefront of national politics. In Britain, part of the CCB’s responsibility was the nationalisation of pubs and off-licenses situated in parts of the country that were of strategic importance to the war effort.
These contexts directly parallel what we’re seeing in South Africa and Thailand, where extraordinary circumstances necessitated extraordinary countermeasures. However, there is also an important difference that must be stressed: while current lockdown prohibitions are merely temporary, most advocates of prohibitions and controls a century ago believed that such measures were to be permanent, based on their view that there were no advantages to permitting the existence of ‘demon drink’ in society. The ban on the distillation of vodka instituted under Imperial Russia in 1914 was maintained after the October Revolution and was not scrapped until after Lenin, himself an ardent prohibitionist, died in 1924. Yet, within the British context, the First World War effectively reshaped alcohol licensing for several generations, as high beverage duties and shorter opening hours were mostly preserved into the interwar and postwar eras.
These cases highlight the broader implications of social and economic reforms that are being implemented today. Right-wing governments in both Britain and Japan have approved record levels of government spending in the form of economic aid and stimulus. As Bernie Sanders ended his bid for the Democratic nomination in April 2020, politicians of both the left and the right debated the federal implementation of universal healthcare and paid sick leave in light of the public health crisis. Most recently, the Spanish government announced a €3-billion-euro universal basic income scheme to stimulate the pandemic-hit economy through increased consumer spending. A columnist for The Washington Post was clearly onto something when he declared that ‘there are no libertarians in foxholes’.
It is, however, decidedly too early to predict the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and whether these will lead to what many hope to be a reversal of neoliberal reforms that have dominated economics since the 1970s. One cannot forget that the ‘Keynesian Resurgence’ in stimulus spending during the Financial Crisis of 2007-08 was immediately followed by the tragedy of the Eurozone Crisis and the traumas of austerity measures that devastated the public sectors of Greece, Spain, Italy, Britain, and so on. Despite that, the impact of abrupt changes in undermining the status quo cannot be underestimated, as we saw with the global ‘wave’ of alcohol prohibitions a century before. History, therefore, is an apt reminder of how crises are moments when ‘radical’ reforms that were previously only imagined can eventually become reality.
Ryosuke Yokoe is a historian of medicine, science, and public health, presently affiliated with the University of Sheffield as an honorary research fellow. He recently completed a PhD on the medical understandings of alcohol and liver disease in twentieth-century Britain. You can find him on Twitter @RyoYokoe1.