Report from Germany: COVID-19 Lockdown Leads to an Increase in AA Participation

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In early March, as Germany entered a state of lockdown in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic, sales of alcohol spiked. By the end of the month, wine sales saw an increase of 34 percent from the previous month. Additionally, liquor sales went up 31 percent.

According to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the number of people reaching out for help with problem drinking also spiked. A spokesman for one local chapter in Berlin reported that it now receives daily calls from people seeking help. Before lockdown, that rate hovered around one or two calls a month. Lockdown conditions, in other words, force many to recognize that they need help – and that help is available.

Drinking in Germany

As in many cultures around the world, alcohol plays an important role in German cultural identity. Beer is the national drink. Many regions host annual celebrations of the beverage, such as beer festivals. Germany also has a robust culture around wine, with 13 wine-producing regions and a long tradition of viniculture. These and other alcoholic beverages form a recognized part of social life and celebratory events.

This culture can hide its darker side, however. When a population normalizes excess alcohol use and seeking care becomes stigmatized, problems follow. In recent years, an estimated three million Germans between the ages of 18 and 64 struggled with overuse of alcohol, according to a survey by the German Center for Addiction Issues. The boredom and anxiety of conditions during the global pandemic may have made that struggle more difficult for some, driving the spike in alcohol sales.

The Effect of COVID-19 Lockdown

Why did more problem drinkers reach out for help during quarantine?

One reason may be that family members witnessed problem drinking for the first time. Without the structure of a daily commute, people were at home with their families and unable to conceal their behavior. Similarly, the intense disruption that lockdown measures created in daily routines may have forced many drinkers to confront their own behavior in a new way. Grabbing a drink with co-workers before heading home provides a socially acceptable buffer that enables many heavy drinkers to avoid confronting just how much alcohol they consume. In lockdown, consuming a similar amount at home alone is much more easily recognized as problematic.

It’s also notable that the impact of coronavirus in Germany has been intense, with nearly 200,000 cases and over 9,000 deaths. It’s possible that these unprecedented circumstances led some to pursue help for their drinking. Or perhaps pushed those with a moderate habit to the level where intervention was necessary.

The Zoom Effect

According to one spokesman for AA in Berlin, the use of the Zoom teleconferencing app for meetings that used to take place in person may be another factor driving the spike. Some people are too isolated to make regular meetings. But they can log into a Zoom call and get the support they need. And speaking to peers from the relative anonymity of a screen may be more comfortable than talking to them in person.

That’s another way in which the global pandemic, though it has been a drastic reset with many unwanted costs and consequences, has also forced innovation. It’s even been a catalyst for positive change. AA chapters around the world indicate they may offer Zoom meetings as things return to a new normal. This added resource for those with alcohol use disorder has the potential to bring hope to many – and even to save lives.