Alec Bruce is an award-winning journalist and author based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His forthcoming memoir, The Last Car Game, uncovers the facts and fictions about booze in history, society, and his own life.
When the World Health Organization issued a warning in April, 2020, telling a small but stubborn segment of the global public that drinking alcohol does not, in fact, cure COVID-19, I had to raise my glass. Good luck with that, I toasted, before downing the last of my Earl Grey special blend.
I’d given up the “good stuff” two years earlier. But even when my liquid diet consisted primarily of gin, not Darjeeling, I noticed how even some teetotalers believed everything they’d heard about the putative health benefits of boozing, oblivious to its risks. Now, here we were debating the therapeutic properties of a substance the abuse of which would, over the next 19 months, kill as many around the world as the pandemic itself (about five million, according to recent United Nations assessments).
The WHO’s official statement was cluttered and jargony, but the bottom line was clear as a bell: Learn the facts. Put on your mask. Keep your distance. And, while you’re at it, you might want to cut back, not ramp up, the drinking.
Good luck, indeed. Since the first bars, pubs and airport lounges shut down in March, 2020, alcohol consumption across North America has not declined, but skyrocketed.
Between April and June of that year, store sales of booze in the U.S. bounced up by 34 per cent, compared with the same period in 2019, reports the Annals of Internal Medicine. The journal Alcohol reports the long, hot American summer that followed was also intoxicating, as sales of beer, wine and spirits soared to US$42-billion between March and September – 20 per cent more than in the year-earlier period.
In Canada, the story was much the same: A federal government survey last May said 24 per cent of alcohol users in this country were drinking more and had no plans to slow down. (To be fair, Statistics Canada also reported that almost as many Canadians were drinking less since COVID, but the overall trend was up).
In my home province of Nova Scotia, Liquor Corporation president and CEO Greg Hughes was positively glowing about the 23.1-per-cent increase in the average value of his Crown enterprise’s transactions since the beginning of the emergency. “A full year in pandemic mode certainly impacted our financial performance,” he crowed to the press in June. “We were pleased to see our customers continue to be passionate about supporting our local industry partners.”
The notion that consistent imbibing kills the virus that causes COVID hasn’t abated in the darker corners of the internet. Meanwhile, nearly two years of barely bridled boozing has shown that many otherwise rational folks appear to believe that while alcohol may not be a silver bullet, it’s a helpful sedative with no nasty side effects should one, heaven forbid, ever contract the germ.
Wrong again. According to the WHO and several other health organizations, drinking automatically puts you at risk. COVID compromises your immune system. So does booze. Together, they’re a match made in epidemiological hell. If nothing else, they have that in common.
That humans have enjoyed a long and often mystical love affair with alcohol is a matter of record. Ever since we started fermenting fruit some 9,000 years ago, we’ve expected unrealistic boons from consuming it.
Ancient Thracian physicians dispensed wine to treat cancer; medieval European monks believed it cured the Black Plague. Hospitals in Edwardian London apportioned gin to patients with gout, gallstones and liver disease. Sufferers of Spanish Flu received rum for their secondary infections of pneumonia.
Even now, with the benefit of 21st century medicine, we assume facts about alcohol that are not evident, and we happily ignore those that are.
I certainly did. I spent most of my adult life drinking prodigiously, thinking that alcohol somehow fortified my character and gave me the courage to tackle projects I couldn’t imagine doing elsewise. I also decided that I’d developed, over the years, a physical tolerance to it – the way some snake handlers build their immunity to venom by allowing themselves to be bitten over and over again.
“Yeah, it doesn’t actually work that way,” said the doctor, who told me I had an existential choice to make, given the condition of my liver. “You’re a journalist. I thought you were supposed to know stuff.”
So did I. Still, it’s not necessary to be addicted to alcohol to think magically about the stuff. The most sober-minded among us do it all the time.
In the early days of the pandemic, the Ontario government declared liquor stores an essential service. Some public-health experts at the time approved of the move because they feared cutting people off from their hooch would propel at least some, suffering from withdrawal, to emergency rooms already jammed with COVID patients.
Absent any real evidence, it’s not hard to go from there to: “Throw me the hooch. I’ve been feeling a little COVID-ed lately. Gout’s been acting up, too.”
It may be that alcohol, being one of humanity’s first drugs, will always exert a particularly infrangible influence on us, occasionally undermining our mental faculties even when we’re stone-cold sober. We’re besotted more by our collective memory of its legendary wiles than by its actual charms. Or, maybe, we just like to drink.
In either case, the solution to our shared alcohol problem – to all of our social problems, from climate change to pervasive poverty – is self awareness.
Learn the facts. Parse the fictions. Act accordingly, in your own best interest and that of everyone around you. It should be simple. But to anyone who manages the feat in a roomful of braying, nonsensical boozers, I will raise my glass.
Earl Grey, of course.