No Australian would begrudge Dan Andrews’ choice of tweet on Monday night referencing his treat of drinking a couple of tumblers of scotch. Regardless of your political opinion of the man - he’s a human who is no doubt battered, bruised, and exhausted.
Nonetheless, those of us who work on the frontlines of health - specifically alcohol addiction - know that this image and reference was also upsetting for a number of at-risk Victorians.
If you missed it, a reporter asked Mr Andrews the question ‘’so, can I confirm you are saying we can finally get on the beers?’’ in response to an earlier (no doubt wiser) suggestion from Andrews that excessive beer consumption during lockdown was not an ideal way to ‘survive’ a pandemic.
The premier then came back with a no doubt well-intended and light hearted response of ‘’I might go a little higher up the shelf!’’ hence the subsequent tweeted image.
The Australian has since published an online piece about the social media backlash from those who are declaring there’s ‘nothing to celebrate’, and that lives have been irrevocably impacted - along with all the predictable comments, outrage, and online venom we’ve all come to expect. (Honestly, I don’t know how politicians manage this life. They truly are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.)
The elephant in the room for those of us in the addictions frontlines from that tweet is that many Australians have only scraped through lockdown with their sobriety just intact. And, so, it was a difficult tweet in some ways for those of us in advocacy to see.
Why? Well, along with the continued normalisation of alcohol use as a way to survive lockdown and now to celebrate the end of lockdown - there’s the hard truth that alcohol abuse and misuse has skyrocketed during the pandemic.
FARE recently released statistics showing that since lockdown Woolworths – the biggest owner of takeaway alcohol - had a 161% increase in home delivery, Not to mention the 26% increase in online sales.
The harm from such a surge in alcohol flowing in the home saw a doubling of calls to the AOD hotline, and frontline health workers reported an increase in family violence.
And of course those are only the stats we know about. Believe me, as a recovered alcoholic - I can vouch for the fact that most of us won’t ever comfortably reveal the full depth of our ‘’quantities’’ consumed when asked, either.
Each year, Australia loses 6,000 lives to alcohol-related illness, injury, and death.
This pandemic has revealed in so many ways what so many of us on the frontlines already know, which is that Australia is, um, well, addicted.
Ever stopped to consider why booze was declared an ‘essential service’ back when the madness of COVID-19 began?
The reason is simple: a cutting off of alcohol supplies during lockdown would have led to not only horrendous civil unrest, but our emergency departments would have been crashed with the plethora of undiagnosed and untreated alcohol-addicted souls going into acute withdrawals. You’ll never hear a politician admit to this, of course.
What is really upsetting for those of who work day and night to bring balanced, reasonable, and non-judgemental education and awareness to the table is that isolation and addiction to hand-in-hand, and overcoming addiction in ‘’ISO’’ is the cruellest battle of all.
Again, I can vouch for this one first-hand. As a rural Australian who had to overcome chronic end-stage alcoholism in isolation with almost no support or services on hand (incidentally, that’s our normal, and will remain so long after COVID leaves the building) - I am one of countless many who almost didn’t make it.
Many have not made it. And many will not.
Which is why we really have to talk about the insipid and relentless normalisation of alcohol use in our culture.
To be crystal clear - I am no wowser. Not by a long stretch. I’m also no prohibitionist. Furthermore - I would never demonise someone for their choice to enjoy a drink. The recovered alcoholic in me knows that hypocrisy and evangelism are not the answers. That’s not what this is about.
This is about us taking leadership on a complex topic and ensuring we are educating everyday Aussies on the simple and full truth of the impact of booze in this country.
And right now I truly don’t think our leaders are not talking enough truth around this complex, fragile topic.
Given that booze rakes in a lazy $6 billion in tax profits annually, I can see why plenty of politicians would avoid tackling this topic at all costs. But guess what - it also costs the taxpayer $32 billion. So, there’s that.
That’s why it’s with much respect to those still in the trenches fighting for their lives that I urge our leaders now, more than ever, to take great care around their messaging in such an incredibly overlooked area that claims about 5,500 more lives annually than COVID-19 has taken so far.
We need to ensure Australia is not consistently promoting the message that using alcohol is the ‘only’ reward on offer and to start being a little more fair-dinkum that for some of us, it’s a one way ticket to an early grave.
Let’s bring some inclusion into our leadership in this area. For instance - why not tweet an image of a scotch and a glass of soda with the wording ‘’here’s cheers to those surviving lockdown, whatever your preferred beverage is.’’
There are endless ways we can gently and thoughtfully make an impact.
Soon, a documentary called Addicted Australia will be airing on SBS. So it’s very encouraging to see that programmes like this, along with the former ‘’On the Sauce’’ with Shaun Micallef have begun the overdue yarns we need to see at a national level. But we haven’t even scratched the surface of what everyday alcoholism is costing us.
Shanna Whan is a recovered alcoholic from rural Australia who shares her story from addiction with the sole aim of breaking stigmas. She’s also the CEO & Founder of rural alcohol awareness charity Sober in the Country Ltd, and advocates relentlessly for social inclusion and change not just rurally but at a national level.
Shanna Whan is a public personality and recovered alcoholic from rural Australia who shares her story from addiction with the sole aim of breaking stigmas. She’s also the CEO & Founder of rural alcohol awareness charity Sober in the Country Ltd, and advocates relentlessly for social inclusion and change not just rurally but at a national level. Visit the charity website at www.soberinthecountry.org to learn more.