Opinionista Michael le Cordeur 22 July 2020

Schools must teach children to consume alcohol responsibly

A return to health education in our school curriculum is necessary to tackle the crisis of alcohol abuse in our country. Children need to know what its value is and understand its potential harm.

When I was still in primary school, we had Health Studies as a subject. We were taught to look after our own health. Handwashing and a healthy diet became part of our daily life. Although we were poor, we were taught from an early age that smoking and alcohol abuse were unhealthy. As a result, I never smoked and enjoy only an occasional glass of wine.

Another subject no longer with us, Physical Education, ensured regular exercise. During breaks, we each had to swallow a vitamin pill. It had an awful taste, but did us a world of good. That was then.

At the time of writing this article, the Cabinet was considering whether schools should stay open or closed until the pandemic reaches its peak. Whatever they decide, one thing is certain: schools must open again one day, and the curriculum must change, especially regarding health education.

A nationwide debate currently prevails because the liquor ban has been instituted again. Opposing the ban, the industry submits that it provides work for 300,000 people and annually contributes R50-billion to the gross domestic product. About 350 wine producers and 80 wineries will have to close their doors and 18,000 people will lose their jobs if the ban remains in place. A valid case indeed, but there is also another side to be considered.

On social media, a doctor reveals what she experiences daily during a 12-hour shift in the casualty section of a hospital: numerous women are assaulted by their drunken husbands and some are admitted with broken limbs. The head of another was split open, and yet another was dead on arrival due to multiple stab wounds. The doctor must also treat patients suffering from diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks and strokes. All in the midst of a pandemic.

These revelations are confirmed by data from the trauma units of five big hospitals in the Western Cape. It indicates a decrease in trauma cases of 40% to 50% during the alcohol ban.

Before the ban, there was a daily need for 2.7 beds for trauma cases. This increased to 10 beds a week after the ban was lifted. That amounts to seven beds which could have been utilised by Covid-19 patients.

When the ban on liquor sales was previously lifted, daily trauma cases increased by 62% and trauma deaths increased substantially. The effect of alcohol on hospitals is thus undeniable.

This left the president with no choice but to ban the sale of liquor. But this is only a temporary measure. In the long term, we require a sustainable solution to the abuse of alcohol, which was a major problem even before the pandemic. At the start of Level 3 of lockdown, the president asked South Africans to take responsibility for their own health.

This is partially appropriate, but for me the solution lies first in education. The liquor industry must become part of the solution by considering how the industry itself can be managed differently. How can the product they offer lead to a win-win relationship between the liquor industry and the community as a whole?

One idea might see the presence of an educational representative at wine farms who informs visitors (including learners) about the responsible use of alcohol. This would add value to their product and cultivate an appreciation of it among children.

Second, health education starts at home. However, the situation in most homes is not ideal. Children grow up with mothers as single parents because 66% of fathers are absent. We thus have no alternative but to teach children at school, not just about the responsible use of liquor, but about all health aspects and diseases including HIV/Aids, diabetes, Covid-19, flu and tuberculosis.

The lack of meaningful health education in the current curriculum has been ignored for too long. DM

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