The director of emergency medicine research at one of Australia’s busiest hospitals says she has seen “extreme examples of people with severe alcohol dependency and intoxication” throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, and that while less people are being harmed due to alcohol-related street and bar injuries and accidents, more harm is occurring in homes.
Prof Diana Egerton-Warburton, who works at Monash Health, said that in the past couple of months she had seen a woman admitted to emergency in her 30s who held down a job which had transitioned to working from home due to the pandemic, allowing her to drink half a bottle of gin a day.
Another patient, an intoxicated man, needed five police officers to hold him down. When Egerton-Warburton asked him how much he drank, he replied: “However much I can afford to.”
“Anecdotally we are seeing a lot of increases in the severe alcohol harm,” Egerton-Warburton said. “With lockdown we have seen less of the random bar and street assaults and random injuries from people drunk on the streets and falling over hurting themselves and others, and more family violence, and more very extreme examples of people with severe dependency and intoxication who are being harmed while drinking at home.”
Her comments come as the Australian National University released the results from a nationally representative survey on Wednesday that found people are drinking more frequently during the pandemic than in the three years prior. Rates of alcohol consumption increased slightly for men and substantially for women.
The researchers surveyed 3,219 respondents aged 18 years and above, asking them about their drinking habits at various points in the 12 months prior. They compared this with data based on similar questions about alcohol consumption collected by the National Household Survey and the Australian Bureau of Statistics in previous years.
While the ANU researchers acknowledged there may be differences in data collection between the surveys, the previous surveys nonetheless provided a benchmark for the researchers to compare the survey answers they collected between 12 and 24 May against.
The lead researcher, Professor Nicholas Biddle, said the overall trend was a moderate increase in drinking among those who reported drinking more – about 1-2 more standard drinks per week. But he said the researchers found the increase was higher among some groups “including women aged between 35 and 44, women who reported a large increase in caring responsibilities, and men whose hours of work has been cut back during the pandemic”.
“For both men and women in these groups, psychological distress and challenges from stress and economic uncertainty have correlated with increases in their drinking.”
Biddle emphasised that sales data from stores that sell alcohol – not yet available for during the pandemic – would be needed to strengthen the findings. The study pointed out that spending on Commonwealth Bank cards shows a large rise in spending on alcohol in the week ending 27 March compared with the same week in 2019, but this increase had not been sustained in the following months.
“In fact, in most weeks since the week ending 27th March, total alcohol spending has been down compared to the same week in 2019,” the paper said. “This strongly suggests that the initial increase in alcohol sales was a one-off that reflected people ‘stocking up’ as they feared that the bottle shops would shut.”
Biddle said the data also found that men aged between 18 and 24 were more likely to have decreased their drinking during lockdown.
The data has been made publicly available through the Australian data archive for other researchers to use. The results follow an Australian-first survey of 53 specialists working in domestic violence during the pandemic published in May and led by the Foundation for Alcohol Research Education and Women’s Safety NSW. It found 47 per cent of family violence specialists were seeing an increase in their caseload. The majority of the increase was due to new clients, the survey found.