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COVID ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’: Big increase in alcoholic liver disease deaths during pandemic

Written by on 24/07/2021

Deaths from alcoholic liver disease increased by an unprecedented 21% during the first year of the pandemic, compared to 2.9% between 2018 and 2019.

Sky News speaks to someone who lost her sister to the disease, as well as a recovering alcoholic who had to have a liver transplant.

After years of drinking, Martin Rhodes will be 11 years sober on 7 September.

Martin has died twice and been resuscitated, suffered total liver failure which led to a transplant, developed insulin dependent diabetes and heart problems, and has chronic kidney disease – all caused by the one thing he thought was his “friend”: Alcohol.

Martin Rhodes is a recovering alcoholic
Image: Martin Rhodes says the pandemic has led people to take ‘the escape route’ – alcohol

Mentally and physically, he has worked hard to recover from his addiction. He feels comfortable enough now to accept he has had success.

“I’ve got a life. I’ve got an identity. I know who I am and where I’m going,” he said.

It’s a far cry from his darker days.

More on Covid-19

“Everybody drank,” he said.

“It was socially acceptable. But it slowly takes more and more of you away, until you don’t really wake up.

“You’re in a fog, and that fog becomes a comfort zone.”

As someone who lives with long term health issues because of his dependency, he is not surprised that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in the number of deaths from alcohol-related conditions.

“Everyone’s doing their best to keep their head above water, and look as if they’re functioning to the best of their ability.”

“COVID has come along and it has been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“It has just been that thing that has been completely uncontrollable for individuals so they’ve just had to take the escape route, and that escape route is substance issues.”

Sally (we’ve changed her name at her request) lost her sister in February 2020. It was just days before lockdown began in March last year.

'Sally' lost her sister in February 2020. It was just days before lockdown began in March last year.
Image: ‘Sally’ says lockdown restrictions may well have created a perfect storm for the growth of alcohol dependency

It meant only a handful of people could attend her sister’s funeral, and those who loved her were left to grieve alone during one of the most stressful times of their lives. Sally says she only got through it with help from a support group for the friends and families of those with alcohol addictions called Al-Anon.

“Watching your little sister on life support for six days, after you’ve been told she’d survive for five minutes, you know, just waiting for her to die, is just awful,” Sally said.

“It’s torture. But also the years before are a living grief. She was dying in front of us.”

Sally says her sister was a “functioning alcoholic”.

“She was very intelligent, witty and kind.

“She worked successfully in a number of jobs as an engineer.

“It just shows there is no ‘typical’ alcoholic. It could happen to anyone.”

Sally shares Martin’s fears that the pandemic, and the restrictions imposed to contain it, may well be a perfect storm for the growth of alcohol dependency.

Sadly, figures from Public Health England seem to back that up.

Between 2019 and 2020 the number of deaths from alcoholic liver disease rose by 21% but pre-COVID (between 2018 and 2019) the increase was 2.9%.

The number of alcohol related deaths also increased by 20% in 2020.

Rosanna O’Connor, director of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and justice at PHE, said: “Our research suggests that lockdown has affected heavy drinkers the most, and that they are drinking more.

“Tackling harmful drinking must be an essential part of the COVID-19 recovery plan.”

Those worried about their drinking should speak with their GP or local alcohol services, she added.

 Sky News

© Sky News 2020

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