“Modern life,” Hemingway wrote in pre-Covid times (1935), “is too often a mechanical oppression. And liquor provides the only mechanical relief.”
A world war and a pandemic later, it seems he continues to be right. In New York, the city arguably the worst-hit by COVID-19, alcohol sales have gone up over three-fold. The US President, an almost evangelical teetotaller, did not ban the sale of alcohol. In fact, across much of the world (places that did not have prohibition to begin with), alcohol was sold while maintaining social distancing — even as an essential item if need be.
Not, however, in India — “New India”. For well over a month, along with alcohol, cigarettes too were nowhere to be found (legally) during the lockdown. It is somewhat difficult to explain the joys of smoking to those who do not. Let it suffice to say that like love, it is pointless and tragic. The glimmer of hope brought on by the announcement of the lockdown being eased was immediately belied when it transpired that “red zones” — which encompass the metros — were to be “dry” for a while longer.
There are two possible explanations for this exceptional behaviour by Indian authorities. First, that our government, more than most others, cares so deeply for its citizens that it was willing to contain their freedom for their own good. That this was one of those silver linings in a global catastrophe, “an opportunity in the crisis”, that will force people to become Adarsh Nagriks by going cold turkey, and become as healthy as a bunch of boys in shorts indulging in nation-building activities and martial arts.
Second, perhaps slightly more uncharitably, the ban on “sin goods” had little to do with health policy, the economy or concern for citizens as individuals and everything to do with a particular kind of ideology and morality.
So, which is it?
Let’s begin with the science and commerce of vice, before and after the pandemic. It will only make a stronger case for humanity and ethics.
Last month, a French study carried out at the Pitié Salpêtrière — part of the Hôpitaux de Paris — used data from 480 patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 to find that smokers had a significantly lower mortality rate from the disease compared to the general population. Earlier, a study from China made a similar finding. Both countries have among the highest populations of smokers in the world. In France, the government had to control the sale of nicotine substitutes as non-smokers rushed in for them as a defence against the coronavirus.
This is not to say that smoking is healthy — it is a terrible health hazard, and people should be encouraged to quit. But kicking the habit is hard, as any number of studies show. Withdrawal causes irritation, headaches, coughs — generally lowering immunity. Now, a lower immunity isn’t something we want, is it?
With alcohol, too, a similar argument applies. Alcohol dependence — alcoholism — is a terrible disease with severe social consequences. Yet, most people who drink are not alcoholics. Drinking is usually a social activity or, at worst, “a mechanical relief”. Paradoxically, those who will suffer the most as a result of the Covid-induced prohibition will be serious addicts. Withdrawal can be very painful, and there is a reason that rehabilitation facilities do so such steady business. Unsupervised and involuntary cessation of consumption can have serious consequences on both medical and physical health. That’s why, even in states with prohibition, limited amounts of liquor can be bought on a doctor’s prescription, as a medicine for a disease.
The medical and health benefits of banning essential addictions, especially in a time of crisis, are clearly negligible. Weighed against the economic cost, the move has been downright counterproductive.
In FY19, the revenue from just cigarettes was a whopping Rs 348 billion. And a study by ASSOCHAM last year found that the tobacco sector as a whole contributes Rs 11,79,498 crore (including agriculture and exports) to the Indian economy and employs about 4.57 crore people. At a time when a prolonged economic crisis seems almost certain, this is revenue the central government should not let go of lightly.
The case for alcohol is even more fraught. Revenue from taxes on liquor remains one of the few sources for states to generate revenue post GST. Post the lockdown, reports of liquor smuggling and black marketing at huge markups have become commonplace. Halfway through lockdown 1.0, Karnataka had already lost Rs 800 crore in revenue, according to the state’s excise minister. And in its last budget, the Delhi government expected about 14 per cent of its revenues (nearly Rs 6,000 crore) to come from alcohol sales.
Given that the burden for many of the relief measures proposed post the lockdown will be shared by the states, will the Centre compensate them for this loss? Or failing that, take over the financial burden in proportion to the damage its policies have caused? Unlikely.
Given the dubious medical science and bad economics behind the decision to ban sin goods, another line of possible reasoning presents itself.
For some time before the pandemic struck, senior members of the government were extolling the virtues of discipline, sacrifice and fundamental duties of citizens. This political imaginary saw Indians in a uniform way, keen to judge them rather than understanding them. Its morality is the same as that of the upper-caste patriarch. But like most such fathers, grandfathers and uncles, they were often disappointed by the unruliness of their progeny — we eat different things, drink, smoke, question.
But there was an opportunity in the virus, a test of citizens’ discipline, and the chance to promote a self-serving definition of what people need and what they don’t. To infantilise all of us. If we aren’t careful, our short-term pain could be a long-term gain for the most controlling aspects of our society.
Finally, a request to the powers-that-be. We are all now, we were told, “warriors” in the war against COVID-19. Like soldiers, can we have our ration of relief?