By Julias Muguwe
While the newspaper headlines and television news cameras have focused on the thousands of workers in retail and services industries losing their jobs, the effects of the COVID-19 crisis have been creeping largely unnoticed through the ranks of the small cap miners to the big operations.
The numbers of employees affected are, of course, far less dramatic than the closure of a large retail chain, and companies are reporting no health issues yet, but the disruption comes at a time when for instance Zimbabwe is still riding on the ‘Zimbabwe is open for business fruitless mantra’.
The corona virus COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected the mining industry in such a way that the global stock markets have dropped, commodity prices tumbled, and mine production outputs took severe hits.
With the outbreak likely to disrupt the global economy for several months, if not years there is need to mitigate or put in place protective measures, otherwise it is going to be disastrous for most African countries.
Given that Zimbabwe had a sick mining economy before the pandemic, it is highly likely that some Mining houses will never recover. With the Zimbabwean government retaining nearly more than 50% of the mines forex earnings we are yet to see what measures the government has put in place to avoid a total collapse.
Let me give a brief of the mines working conditions based on my experiences at various Zimbabwean mines such as Shabani and Mashaba Mines, Hwange Colliery, BHP Hartley Platinum and Arcturus Mine. Whilst some of these operated both surface and underground mining the bulk of their production is from underground. Social distancing underground is almost impossible due to the squalidness and working conditions.
In such operations you have hundreds of people working in close proximity. With so much load shedding most mining operations do rely on diesel powered generators as a source of power. Power is also used to operate the mine underground fans which draw in air and gaseous air out of the mines. A typical daily operation at an underground mine starts with an early morning safety brief which is usually done either underground by the shift bosses or on surface.
Following that miners and other technical staff enter the mine through a system of a hoist with some carrying as many as 50+ miners at big operations. This is a cage hoisted down and it is in this operation again that you will not be able to practise social distancing.
When miners get to the development ends there is hauling and drilling. The drilling operation itself is done by two men and at very limited space. No social distancing can be practised in those stope faces. Whilst it is common practice that masks and goggles are worn underground, the type worn is mainly for dust protection purposes. These may need to be tested for effectiveness on CORVID-19 The depth of the mines makes their operating conditions unique and particularly labour-intensive.
Underground miners are exposed to high temperatures and humidity, and when they return to the surface some live in cramped houses. Most mines do operate canteens and club houses where miners do mix and mingle after hours. While the corona virus outbreak is still in its infancy in Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a national lockdown and implemented travel restrictions, closed schools and banned large gatherings.
It does not take an epidemiologist to realise that the mining work environment is a catalyst for spreading the COVID-19 virus. In addition, the average age in the industry’s workforce is over 40, increasing their vulnerability to an illness that poses a greater risk with age.
The ministry of mines has not given a guideline on how mining operations are going to operate under this threat. It did take a court order by the high court for the Ministry of Health to provide PPE to the doctors and ensure their safety in their practice.
I have not seen any mitigation against CORVID-19 by our Zimbabwean government for the Mining Industry. Mining companies should be directed in collaboration with the Health Ministry to prepare a range of measures such as and not limited to.
• Checking the temperature of workers before going down mines, enter narrow elevators and adits.
• Encouraging employees to find out their HIV status. The mining industry’s experience with AIDS and tuberculosis should stand it in good stead: It has invested in health infrastructure and has experience with contact-tracing because the procedure with a tuberculosis diagnosis is almost similar to that of corona virus.
• Start distributing flu shots and changing the way statutory medical examinations are done.
• An action plan to soften the impact of corona virus on the industry, both for mineworkers and managers who travel extensively.
• In Zimbabwe we have a lot of Chinese who are operating gold and Chrome mines along the great dyke. The flying in flying out should stop until we are on top of the situation.
• Risk-mitigating measures should be put in place to identify any cases of the virus, to ensure rapid isolation and contact tracing.
• If any mine operation is to continue every mine employee should be tested before entering the mine just like health employees.
• For employees, the government must ensure access to masks, sanitizers and testing kits as well as equipment such as temperature monitors.
• Mining companies should be ready to work with all relevant parts of government to manage the spread of the virus, if required.
• Most mines do have some markets for vegetable stalls. During month ends traders flock to the mines to sell various clothing and gadgets to the mines. This should be stopped.
• The Zimbabwean government should act fast to stop a catastrophe in the mining industry.
The above recommendations or guidelines will be difficult to enforce on small scale mining operations where mining is done without protective clothing.
Most youths are involved in these operations for a living and if the government does not look into how they can help small scale miners whom they have allowed to mine without licences, then the CORDIC-19 fight is a losing battle.
The COVID-19 outbreak has made the immediate future of several mining operations around the world uncertain. As a result, there may be an increased appeal and demand for solutions to reduce the human workforce at mine sites.
Whilst it is not possible to predict how COVID-19 will further disrupt the mining industry, what is certain is that the mining industry must reconfigure and prepare itself to operate under a new normal, one in which it can operate and sustain itself under the new constraints and challenges that such pandemics bring with.
Relations between miners and mine owners could be one of the most strained in the longterm. Mining unions across the world are already struggling to ensure their members are treated fairly and safely at work, and those mines that remain open during the pandemic will be doing little to reassure unions that their operators have their workers’ safety at the forefront of their thoughts.
In Zimbabwe, unions have complained against working conditions at the Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company, where mines remain open and some employees are required to sleep seven to a room, with the company unable to implement safe social distancing.
The longer the pandemic goes on, the more strained all of these relations could become. This fight is a fight for us all; lets stay home, lets practice social distancing.
Julias Muguwe (B.sc Honours Geology UZ.) is the MDC Alliance UK AND IRELAND Portfolio Secretary for Mines and Mineral Resources.
He is a registered competent person with SAIMM (South African Institute Of Mining and Metallurgy), A fellow of the Geological Society of England (GEOSOL) and a competent person with SACNASP (South African Council Of Natural Scientific Professions).