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São Tomé and Príncipe, a tiny archipelago off the Atlantic coast of Central Africa with tropical rainforests and white beaches, has come to rely on tourism as a primary source of revenue. Before the cruise ships and charter flights stopped coming due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s image as a pristine vacation destination was tarnished by a study published in the scientific journal Acta Médica Portuguesa exposing a persistent and widespread problem of alcoholism.  


Much of the alcohol is contaminated with heavy metals.


Based on a study with 2,064 participants by Isabel de Santiago, a Portuguese researcher born in São Tomé in 1971, 52 percent of men and 48 percent of women aged between twelve and thirty regularly consume alcohol. Furthermore, much of the alcohol is contaminated with heavy metals, posing health risks to not only those who drink but also infants, as consumption of alcohol while pregnant is common, according to de Santiago.

The publication of the study caused a furor in São Tomé and Príncipe, with even the government accusing de Santiago of deliberately working to damage the country’s reputation and demanding that she apologize.


Sao Tome e Principe's president Evaristo do Espirito Santo Carvalho (2R) arrives at the extraordinary summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in Libreville, on December 18, 2019. The extraordinary summit, announced with only a few weeks' notice, aims at beefing up the 11-nation Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) secretariat to create a more powerful commission, similar to that of the AU or European Union. Only four ECCAS heads of state were present -- presidents Idriss Deby Itno of Chad; Faustin-Archange Touadera of the Central African Republic; Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Evaristo Carvalho of Sao Tome and Principe. Steeve Jordan / AFP
President Evaristo Carvalho of São Tomé and Príncipe is welcomed at the extraordinary summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in Libreville on December 18, 2019.


The Root of the Problem

Alcohol abuse on the islands can be attributed to a variety of factors, but all of them trace back to a common theme: poverty. Making and selling sugarcane spirits or palm wines is a reliable and steady source of income, where around half of the nation’s 200,000 citizens live on less than $2.17 per day.

As one of the last African countries to confirm the presence of COVID-19, the government of São Tomé and Príncipe has instituted various restrictions to mitigate the spread of the virus, including the suspension of all travel for residents between the islands. With all businesses forced to operate under the same hours, the economic squeeze imposed on residents is likely to compel even more people to make wine or distill spirits as a way to supplement their income, making the fight to eliminate alcoholism even more difficult.


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