It is true the Kerala economy is suffering something akin to a massive power shutdown after people started withdrawing into their homes fearing Sars-CoV-2, the super infective novel strain of coronavirus.
Government sources say if at all there is some life left, it is largely thanks to booze. On an average the Kerala government-owned Beverages (Manufacturing & Marketing) Corporation Ltd (BEVCO) sells bottles worth Rs 35 crore to 40 crore a day (last fiscal the sales fetched nearly Rs 15,000 crore; in addition, there is the annual excise revenue of nearly Rs 2,500 crore). So, even if BEVCO is asked to shut down for only two weeks, the state is staring at a loss of up to Rs 600-700 crore.
Let's say we ignore the revenue part. But can we brush aside the health hazards, they ask. Won't spurious liquor, fermented using the most deadly toxins, suddenly flood the market?
The Cabinet on Wednesday seems convinced of the dangers and, in its collective wisdom, has decided it was better to keep bars and its 265 BEVCO outlets open.
What has not been acknowledged is that a fully functional BEVCO retail outlet could potentially offer the virus its biggest temptation: scores of men jammed into each other every given moment for most part of the day.
Till now, Kerala has more or less managed to keep the virus contained within those who came into the state infected. Fear is, we could be on the brink of slipping into stage-III of the outbreak, when human to human transmission will go out of control putting unbearable strain on our fragile health infrastructure.
Social distancing and hand hygiene are the means the government has employed to break the virus chain. But a BEVCO outlet – where people crowd around like atoms in a molecule – is where the virus could gleefully form hundreds of new connections.
"The metal enclosures through which customers move towards the BEVCO counter are highly narrow. With people eager to move forward, pushing, shoving and blocking are common sights. Standing in long queues for an inordinately long time will make them sweat and it is usual to see some of them spit on the walls and floor. And if some are already drunk, it is hard to control them. People keep walking in and there is no time to clean the railings or counter tops. The place is eternally unhygienic," said Rajendran who had earlier worked in one such outlet in Thiruvananthapuram.
An open BEVCO outlet is also perhaps the oddest sight at a time when Kerala is studiously fighting the virus. Cinema theatres and shopping malls have been closed. Temples have been told to conduct rituals with not more then 10 persons. There is an unofficial ban on festivals. Attendance at marriage functions has been restricted to 100. Even unemployed migrant workers who wait at junctions in the mornings for some employer to pick them up have been asked to remain inside their lodgings.
Tipplers alone have been given a free run. Public health expert Dr Ramankutty V is highly amused at the government's decision. "I have been walking around for the last two days to find a place to cut my hair. When such is the self-discipline practised, this decision feels a bit of a contradiction," Dr Ramankutty said.
Nonetheless, he acknowledges the government's predicament. "My sense is that there has been some revenue considerations. It is a difficult balance the government is trying to achieve. Now that the decision has been taken, the liquor sales should be structured in such a way that there is no crowding," he said and added: "I don't know how it is practically possible."
Beverages Corporation MD Sparjan Kumar has issued a brief and vague directive to the staff in BEVCO outlets. Besides the personal precautions they have to take, the staff has been asked to "educate" customers on the need to use masks or towels. The security at the outlet has been told to ensure that customers stand at least one metre from each other in the queue.
"Keeping a safe distance of at least one metre is highly impractical," a top official in one of BEVCO's regional offices told Onmanorama. "There are many outlets that are placed just along the shoulder of the road where the space to form a queue is already minuscule. Also, there is nothing more difficult, perhaps even dangerous, than asking a drunkard to behave," the official said.
It is also a fact that masks, gloves and sanitisers for the staff have not yet reached several of the outlets. BEVCO company secretary John Joseph said these were being distributed.
Shortened liquor lines
Dr Ramankutty said if it was hard to control the crowd, the BEVCO could put a limit on the number of persons who could stand in queue at a given moment. Such a restriction has not yet been issued.
"They could also arrange some taps at the front of each outlet where customers could wash their hands like the public is doing in many parts of the state," Dr Ramankutty said.
Another community medicine expert, Dr K R Thankappan of the Department Of Public Health and Community Medicine, Central University of Kerala, was also against the decision but wanted Kerala to make the best of the bad bargain. "No more than 10 or 15 people should stand in queue at any given time. Customers should be let in only in batches," Dr Thankappan said.
He also recommended that a board be placed before the outlets explaining the need to keep a distance and also the importance of constantly cleaning their hands with soap or sanitisers. "The BEVCO should have water and sanitisers or soap in front of all the outlets," Dr Thankappan said.
Economic experts Onmanorama talked to said the anticipated losses on account of closure was overestimated. "The bars are still open, so I don't think there would be much of a revenue loss," said former public finance professor Xavier John.
He also did not mind the bars being kept open as long as they adopted solid preventive measures. "If hotels can be kept open, bars too can be. Only thing is they should insist on a minimum distance requirement for both staff and customers and should also use sanitisers at the entrance and also inside for customers to regularly wash their hands," he said.