Sourdough and baking helped many people cope with 2020, and many have found solace in family Zoom calls. But for millions around the world, the stress of the pandemic and tedium of lockdown life saw them seek the comforting embrace of another, fickle friend: alcohol.
Like most social behaviors, drinking habits have been upended by pandemic restrictions. With people furloughed and working from home, wine bottles have been opened earlier and earlier in the day. But one major role of booze in normal times is to act as a social lubricant, and with bars and pubs closed and parties banned, other drinkers have simply lost the taste for it.
So has COVID-19 got us drinking more, or less, than before? Public health researchers are trying to find out — to see if the events of 2020 have helped the world to sober up, or if we're all heading for the mother of all hangovers. They're finding that age and outlook on life drive our response to lockdown. Younger drinkers seem happier to find other things to do, while their stressed-out parents are more likely to be seeking solace in the bottom of a glass.
And, surprise, surprise, it looks like we British have reacted to COVID-19 by drinking the most.
"The overall picture is just really messy," says Colin Angus, an alcohol policy modeler at the University of Sheffield Alcohol Research Group in the U.K. "Some people are going to be behaving in different ways to others. And that's going to vary by demographic factors but also by geography."
Data from the U.K. highlight this blurred picture. In May last year, a survey that asked more than 20,000 people about alcohol consumption in 2019 and 2020 found a spike in high-risk drinking following lockdown, from around 25 percent to 38 percent. But the same survey reported a near doubling in the number of high-risk drinkers who said they were trying to cut down, up to nearly 29 percent from 15 percent.
A separate survey of 33,000 people carried out around the same time found that 48 percent of drinkers said they were drinking about the same amount. The rest were split equally between those who said they were drinking more and those who said they were drinking less.
Survey after survey in different countries and regions finds this same picture, says Henk Hendriks, a nutrition consultant in Zeist, the Netherlands, who wrote an article on alcohol and human health in the Annual Review of Food Science and Technology last year. "About half of people report they are drinking about the same amount as before, while about a quarter drink less and a quarter say they are drinking more," he says.
Scientists who track large-scale trends in alcohol consumption tend to take such survey results with a healthy dose of salt and vinegar. With bars closed, drinkers often indulge differently — for example, many people in the U.K. choose to drink beer when out in pubs but wine at home, Angus says. This can make it difficult for people asked in surveys to accurately compare the overall amount of alcohol they drank during lockdown at home with what they drank, say, six months or a year previously.
"People are really bad at that. It often gets painted as 'People are lying,' but it's just genuinely quite hard to answer that question," Angus says. "We drink in quite a chaotic way."