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Drinking in coronavirus isolation: experts warn Australians to monitor their intake

The Guardian logo The Guardian 06/04/2020 Brigid Delaney
a close up of a bottle and a glass of wine: Photograph: Moyo Studio/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Moyo Studio/Getty Images

In the first wave of coronavirus panic buying in Australia, shoppers hoarded toilet paper. Then they came for pasta, rice and tinned food. A week or so later, there was a shortage of napkins, paper towels and tissues.

On 22 March there was a run on bottle shops, as shoppers, thinking outlets might close under new laws, stockpiled alcohol. In the confusion as to whether bottle shops were an essential service, trolleys were stacked with spirits, wine and cases of beer.

“Can report there is now panic buying at Dan Murphy’s. Every car space in our local branch is full, everyone is loading up. We’re going to be one trashed socially isolated nation for a while,” one person wrote on Twitter.

Commsec reported spending was up more than 20% in the week ending 20 March, compared with the same time last year; and in the week to March 27, spending at liquor stores in Australia was up 86%. Although that rise was off-set by the closure of bars, restaurants and pubs, that week Australians still spent 34% more on alcohol than at the same period the previous year.

Now we’re all sitting at home drinking our stockpiled alcohol and having parties on apps, but experts are warning that as well as the pandemic, we’re facing another public health crisis – heavy drinking.

Peter, a 59-year-old marketing manager from Sydney’s upper north shore, was one of those stockpiling alcohol on the weekend of 22 March.

His wife brought three cases of champagne, while he bought “two lots of wine – three crates [12 bottles] both times – and it’s time to refresh those”.

“Since I’ve been working from home, I’ve been slipping into bad ways. I’m not concerned about it yet – but it’s not a good habit,” says Peter, who has been in lockdown for two weeks.

Related: Our post-pandemic selves: why the virus is an opportunity to grow and develop

Before quarantine, he only drank on weekends, but now he says, “We’re both [Peter and his wife] working from home and we’ve been drinking every day starting at 5.30pm. Right now, there’s no consequences – no one notices if you get a bit wooly the next day, and other people are in the same boat. There’s a lot of drinking memes going round. I am not at all surprised that … sales are going through the roof,” he says.

Professor Michael Farrell, director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales Sydney, says the scenes broadcast from crowded bottle shops in late March showed “there’s been an assault on bottle shops – and it’s very clear that sales have gone up. The vulnerability is for people who are already on the margins of heavy drinking. They have had their constraints removed from them.”

a glass of wine sitting on top of a table: ‘No one notices if you get a bit wooly the next day’: working from home during coronavirus social distancing has made it easier for people to drink at all hours, leaving some at risk of developing a daily habit. © Photograph: Moyo Studio/Getty Images ‘No one notices if you get a bit wooly the next day’: working from home during coronavirus social distancing has made it easier for people to drink at all hours, leaving some at risk of developing a daily habit.

These constraints, removed by staying at home, include being able to drink during the day, or being hungover without being detected by employers.

It creates a situation where people are habituated to drinking daily

Chris Raine, Hello Sunday Morning

But he says people are also drinking because of “the anxiety about the complex social situation we are in. People are worried about their jobs, finances and getting ill. They are stockpiling alcohol – it’s a social storm”.

Chris Raine, founder of Hello Sunday Morning, a movement that aims to help people reduce or quit drinking via an accountability app and online counselling, has noticed an “uptick” in the service since people started self-isolating. “Registrations have doubled,” he says.

“It’s really quite scary to be honest – it’s a perfect storm because you have a culture that does rely on alcohol to de-stress and deal with anxiety and now those stresses and anxieties have gone through the roof as a result of the virus.”

Raine worries that under these conditions, “it creates a situation where people are habituated to drinking daily”.

This unusual situation creates the possibility of a cascade effect, says Raine. Weekend drinkers become weekday drinkers; social drinkers become daily drinkers; and those struggling with sobriety, who have relied on the face-to-face assistance of groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (now using Zoom because of physical distancing rules), will relapse.

Related: Coronavirus cancelled my wedding and made me sick. What now?

Farrell agrees, saying people “are left socially isolated – so the normal help is gone”.

He hopes apps such as Daybreak (set up by Raine’s Hello Sunday Morning team) will bridge the gap created by the suspension of face-to-face support groups and counselling.

“One of the things you can do is promote telephone services for counselling people – it’s not very hard to switch into that,” he says. “And you can use apps to get support while isolating. Prevention programs will come later down the line.”

Farrell says right now “the only thing you could do [to halt the problem] potentially is to ration sales”.

Currently the industry’s self-imposed ration limit is fairly generous, says Farrell.

On 1 April, large alcohol retailers in most states (except Western Australia where there are already measures in force) signed up for a voluntary code that limits the amount of liquor customers can buy in one transaction.

Beer, cider and premixed spirits are limited to two cases, and wine to 12 bottles per customer, while cask wine and bottled spirits are limited to two items each.

People should have a number of days where they forgo alcohol

Professor Michael Farrell

Any further restrictions, such as closing bottle shops, might be too much to bear, says Farrell, as “there is enough social control at the moment”.

Instead, “we should focus people on learning physical and mental health hygiene and good regimes around exercise and food. People should have a number of days where they forgo alcohol”.

When Raine saw “the rush on buying alcohol”, he says, “My gut reaction was ‘typical’ and ‘understandable’ but then digging into it, it’s how Australians see alcohol as an essential service – almost culturally seeing alcohol as an essential medicine.”

Raine acknowledges that if the bottle shops were not deemed an essential service and shut down, the results would be disastrous. “You’d have tens of thousands of people going into involuntary detox and not having the health system able to cope. I wish people didn’t culturally depend on alcohol the way they do.”

For people like Peter, entering his third week in social isolation, this is the week to start tracking his drinking.

“There’s moments where it’s appropriate to say ‘bugger it’ and get drunk, but you can’t maintain that throughout the crisis.”

Friday night was going to be Peter’s first Zoom drinks with friends, but the following week he decided to go back to drinking only two nights a week, on weekends.

“It’s very novel territory – it’s hard,” says Raine. “But all difficult things bear the fruit of opportunity. And we can grow and become more resilient.”

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