Spurred on by the continuous rise in numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has moved quickly to implement drastic measures to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, and the safety of the nation’s population. On Monday 23 March 2020, the Presidency announced a 21-day countrywide lockdown from midnight on Thursday 26 March 2020. This follows in the footsteps of numerous other countries across the globe, including Italy, Kenya, Spain, France, South Sudan and Belgium.
Essentially, this means a shutdown of all non-essential commercial stores and businesses such as restaurants, malls, entertainment venues, bars – and vape shops.
While the National Coronavirus Command Council’s decision to enforce a lockdown is highly commended, it will no doubt have a considerable impact on people’s livelihoods. That said, the human cost of delaying such an action would be far worse.
This unprecedented decision is essential, given the fact that South Africa has the highest number of cases in Africa at present. However, according to harm-reduction advocates, the closure of vape shops could lead to an exacerbation of respiratory disease, placing intense strain on an already ailing healthcare system. According to Bloomberg, 84 percent of the 58.8 million South Africans in the country rely on the public healthcare system, which has dilapidated facilities and too few doctors, leading to delayed or inadequate treatment. Additionally, the country also has a large vulnerable population, like people living with HIV and tuberculosis, as well as those living in poverty and are subsequently at a greater risk.
Therefore, vaping and harm-reduction advocates such as the Vapour Products Association of South Africa (VPASA) and the Africa Harm Reduction Alliance (AHRA), have called for electronic vapour product (EVP) shops to be exempt during the COVID-19 lockdown. This view is based on similar actions taken by other governments who have instituted lockdowns in their countries.
In Italy, world-renowned scientist and researcher, Dr Riccardo Polosa, lobbied for the same. His reasoning? Tobacconists were still able to trade, and cigarettes and other tobacco products were also available for purchase at grocery stores and pharmacies while vapes were not. Dr Polosa, also the founder of the Center of Excellence for the Acceleration of Harm Reduction (CoEHAR) in Italy’s city of Catania, explains that a pandemic is a highly stressful situation, which would ultimately lead many vapers and former smokers to return to using tobacco products to meet their nicotine needs. This prompted the Italian government to revoke their former decision. New York, in the United States, has also continued its harm-reduction efforts during the city’s lockdown.
If stores selling tobacco products are allowed to continue trading while vape shops are forced to shut their doors, individuals addicted to nicotine will not have an alternative option that is less harmful to their health. In fact, according to Dr Konstantinos Farsalinos, a cardiologist and research fellow at the Onassis Cardiac Surgery Center in Athens, Greece, propylene glycol, an ingredient that makes up 50 percent of the majority of e-liquids, has antibacterial and antiviral properties in aerosol form. This also contradicts the ill-informed rumours that vaping could lead to increased distress if a person was to become infected with COVID-19. However, as pointed out by Dr Polosa and other contributors to the medical and scientific fields, there is no scientific evidence to support this and no research has been conducted on the relationship between vaping and COVID-19.
During this disruptive and confusing time, where many people will find themselves isolated, anxious and stressed, it would be a disservice not to ensure smokers, ex-smokers and vapers access to a less-harmful alternative: vapour products.