• Ros Nightingale

Experience from other health crises shaped mining industry’s rapid pandemic response


While virologists and risk analysts have been theorising about the effects of a global pandemic for years, few could have imagined the Covid-19 pandemic’s transformative impact on society. Even after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a public health emergency in January, “how many people, globally, would’ve thought that the Covid-19 would have such a profound impact on the global economy, and the global population?” posits Minerals Council South Africa CEO Roger Baxter.

He notes that, fortunately, the local mining industry’s collaboration on other health crises, such as the HIV/Aids epidemic and the country’s persistent challenges with tuberculosis, meant that it was perhaps one of the few industries able to adequately respond and mitigate the spread of the disease. This is evidenced by the fact that the local industry has a mortality rate of 0.1%, or roughly half that of the country, as well as a test rate of 11.83%, which outstrips South Africa’s (7.41%) and the world’s (9.04%) test rate.

Aside from its prior experience with health crises, the effectiveness of the industry’s response is owed to its willingness to collaborate and to its proactivity. As Minerals Council spokesperson Charmane Russell explains: “We really got out of the starting blocks early, in terms of communicating with members and other entities. In fact, before the Investing in African Mining Indaba in February, the industry had recognised the virus as a potential threat. That’s when we started producing material for member companies to educate employees on what Covid-19 was and how to prevent transmission.”

Baxter notes that the Minerals Council’s guideline publications, including the 10-point plan and the standard operating procedures (SOPs), were instrumental in establishing control measures based on risk, prevention and mitigation, and that significant portions of the SOPs were reflected in the regulations published by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE).

He adds that, during the height of the pandemic, the council convened fortnightly CEO Zero Harm forums, during which company CEOs would discuss their measures for addressing the Covid-19 pandemic, to share lessons and successes.

Efforts in Testing

“In February, well before the first case was diagnosed in South Africa, we recognised that the country would not have sufficient resources to adequately address the pandemic. Strong, advanced and well-resourced health systems in developed countries had struggled and so the initial focus was on increasing capacity and acquiring resources,” explains Minerals Council public affairs and transformation senior executive Tebello Chabana.

He adds: “When it was clear that this public health emergency was becoming a pandemic, it became evident that there was a global shortage of testing equipment. Further, it was clear that South Africa’s public testing capacity would become constrained, as many countries were restricting the export of equipment and consumables, and back then there were fewer manufacturers.”

He explains that, some of the member companies were “quite visionary”, looking into means of acquiring Polymerase Chain Reaction machines and other equipment such as storage fridges, biosafety cabinets and centrifuges to increase testing capacity and analyse test samples to help speed up diagnoses and curb the spread of the virus.

“Companies, individually and through the Minerals Council, agreed to shore up the country’s testing capacity, because at the end of the day, while we needed to test employees, there was also a moral obligation to assist in testing communities.

“This pandemic was novel, it was unprecedented, and so companies couldn’t put their hands up and say that government must do everything. Bearing in mind that it is not an occupational disease. Employees were always more likely to contract it outside the mine. Therefore our intervention had to include supporting the government by testing the public.”

He explains that mining companies were essentially establishing standalone laboratories or assisting in increasing capacity at various hospital or medical facilities in nearly every province.

Key to improving capacity was collaboration, with Chabana explaining that companies partnered with each other, State institutions, provincial authorities and private laboratories.

One of the ways in which the council facilitated these partnerships was by vetting private and independently owned laboratories. “We vetted 23 independent labs, focusing on established labs that were able, or had the potential to, conduct Covid-19 testing, and circulated it to member companies.”

Chabana notes that a collaboration between non-governmental organisation Ndlovu Laboratories, Northam Platinum and Glencore Alloys looked to increase testing capacity for communities.

He cites a partnership between Seriti and Exxaro, where the two collaborated on testing within their areas of operation, including testing Eskom employees at power stations to assist in “keeping the lights on”.

Further, he cites collaborations between Gold Fields and theCouncil for Scientific and Industrial Research (on community testing), Sibanye-Stillwater, AngloGold Ashanti, Sasol and Imperial Logistics (who collaborated on large-scale distribution of hand sanitiser produced by Sasol) and Royal Bafokeng Platinum and Impala Platinum (who collaborated on the establishment and equipping of a field hospital). He also points to Anglo American’s large-scale testing programme, which was supported by several member companies.

Companies also provided daily updates in terms of testing, which Chabana explains allowed the industry to move from focusing “purely on testing, to managing the disease”. The data generated by the testing programmes was used with geographic information system mapping – funded by the Minerals Council – to, for example, ensure that areas that “spiked” had sufficient quarantine and isolation facilities.

Communication is Key

Russell explains that the Minerals Council’s Public Affairs Communications Committee – which comprises communications executives from member companies – started meeting weekly, at the start of the pandemic, to share information and good practices for communications with employees and communities.

The committee established a communications protocol, which determined how companies and the council itself would communicate during the pandemic. “We agreed that we had a duty, to employees and communities, to report the status of testing, of isolation within companies, as well as a duty to communicate with other stakeholders, such as the unions, the DMRE and the Department of Health.”

Russell adds that the industry decided to be “incredibly open and transparent” with the council hosting media briefings on a near weekly basis to provide updates. Moreover, the Daily Dashboard, which displays data on testing and the number of positive cases, among others, was set up when the first mining case was reported in March.

“A big part of what we were doing monitoring communication, was making sure that as far as possible, people came to us, bearing in mind that misinformation was typical at the time. The way we countered this misinformation was to make sure that members and employees had the facts. The dashboard was sent to every single CEO and the DMRE every day. We also tried to ensure that accurate information was disseminated to as many entities as possible.”

In terms of publications, in addition to the SOPs and media releases, the council also produced documents on how best to protect vulnerable employees and how to address stigma, which was identified very early on as a potential risk.

Meanwhile, “the funds reallocated for research projects assisted in the development of Behaviours Field Guides, which communicated best practices in terms of mechanisms to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

Russell also notes that, based on the sheer number of downloads, other companies and institutions adapted the SOP for their sectors. “We know that the documents that we created – which are available on the Covid-19 portal that has been up since March – were downloaded over 30 000 times. The educational posters, which have been translated into four different languages, have also been very popular.”

She lauds the way in which companies shared information, citing Gold Fields’ and Exxaro’s willingness to allow other companies to use and rebrand guides and pamphlets, free of charge.

“The Minerals Council plays a strong leadership role. Covid-19 is a health issue, and the industry has a long and entrenched history of collaborating on health and safety. We say, ‘there’s no competition in safety and health’ and that has grounded our pandemic response.”

What the Future Holds

In terms of economic recovery, Baxter notes that, prior to Covid-19, South Africa essentially experienced a “lost decade”, typified by underinvestment and poor growth. He cites the country’s averaging about 1.5% gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the decade since 2009, compared to an average of about 4% growth experienced by other emerging economies.

As for 2020, he expects that GDP will shrink by at least 9%, the fiscal deficit will balloon by about 15%, three-million jobs will be lost, and the country could experience a “full blown sovereign debt crisis.”

He stresses that the country was in trouble before the pandemic hit, but that it has pushed South Africa closer to the precipice. However, it is possible to boost confidence by putting in place measures to implement critical structural reforms.

These structural reforms should include much greater private sector participation and competition in infrastructure (electricity, ports, pipelines, rail); a much more sustainable fiscal policy and balanced budgets; and institutional reforms (a smaller, more efficient and more capable state).

At the mining sector level, the Minerals Council is currently engaged in intensive and frank conversations with the DMRE to identify solutions to constraints to unlock the potential of the exploration and mining sectors. There has been movement in many respects involving preliminary discussions on establishing a mining-focused taskforce within the South African Police Service (SAPS), concessions by the DMRE in terms of mines’ ‘self-generating’ power to improve security of supply, the Minerals Council’s ongoing engagement with the DMRE on the recognition of continuing consequences of previous black economic empowerment transactions, as well as the impending publication of a national exploration strategy.

Baxter says that the Minerals Council fully agrees with President Ramaphosa that extraordinary measures are required towards a speedy and sustainable economic recovery.

“If the COVID-19 pandemic has showed us anything, it is that various segments of our society can come together in service of a greater goal. But it is critical that we have a frank conversation on the real structural and institutional issues impeding competitiveness and growth at the national level and to develop detailed plans on how to unlock these constraints.

“We firmly believe that – with the right interventions – we could grow exploration to 3% of global expenditure within five years and mining could contribute upwards of 10% to South Africa’s GDP, and in so doing, grow GDP overall and help lead the economic recovery. This is a view that Minister Mantashe also shares. With that would come investment, jobs, export earnings and taxes to the fiscus. But, at the heart of our potential recovery as a nation is the need for improving our national competitiveness and we need to focus much more on this issue.” 


LINK : https://www.miningweekly.com/article/experience-from-other-health-crises-shaped-mining-industrys-rapid-pandemic-response-2020-10-23-1

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