According to the Minerals Council South Africa, the mining industry is not the ‘epicentre’ of COVID-19.
The Council clarified this in a statement following reports made by newspapers and government officials, who the Council believes are not part of regulation of the industry and often lack a proper understanding of the precautionary processes implemented by the industry which give rise to the data on which their assumptions are based.
“These assertions are not only inaccurate but serve to spread fear amongst mineworkers and the communities in which they reside or come from. The focus should be on our collective effort in preventing the spread of the virus, supporting those who have contracted the virus, protecting individuals from unwarranted stigmatisation, and addressing the economic consequences of this pandemic,” the statement read.
The Council did acknowledge that there had been more COVID-19 infections diagnosed in mining as a proportion of the workforce than positive diagnoses as a proportion of the population as a whole. However, the organisation cautioned against assuming that mining is more prone to the spread of the virus than the population as a whole.
COVID-19 in the mining industry
There are more than 230 000 miners currently back at work. Each and every one of these mineworkers was screened on their first return to work post the hard lockdown, and every worker is screened for the virus prior to every shift he or she works. In accordance with the NICD protocols, any individual showing any symptoms or who has been exposed to someone who is known to be COVID-19 positive is sent for a test. As part of the industry’s risk-based approach to managing the epidemic, many more people are tested – for example, employees working in high-traffic areas, and randomised testing to understand the nature of infection.
It would only be possible to compare mining’s incidence with the country’s, or with any other defined grouping, if that other grouping was also having each individual screened daily and, in certain cases, having entire sections of that group tested. In essence, if the rest of the population were being scanned and, if necessary, tested at the same intensity as mining, there would be a sharp rise in reported cases in other parts of the economy and society.
Further, many of the cases identified in the mining industry have been identified even though the individuals are asymptomatic or show only mild symptoms. In some of the clusters identified in mining, up to 95% of those who tested positive have been asymptomatic and tested only because of effective tracking and tracing systems in place. Elsewhere in most of the country, it is highly unlikely that those individuals would have been found, because they would not have been traced or tested in the first place.
As it is, we would suggest that the intensive daily screening of mineworkers, and the thorough contact tracing and testing of contacts, means that the overall incidence is no higher than the population as a whole, and is more likely lower, given especially the intensive hygiene and social distancing measures required to be implemented at every workplace.
The Council acknowledged that cluster infections had occurred, resulting in high incidences in particular areas.
It was also noted that as an epidemiological phenomenon, it is also no different from trends seen in other workplaces and in particular communities. Clusters of infections occur in many different places. Further, mines are part of communities and communities are part of mines. It is likely that those clusters similarly exist in the communities surrounding those particular mining operations; the difference, of course, is that employees have been tested, whereas some surrounding community members have not been. To date, 679 COVID-19 cases have been detected in the mining industry with one death.
The Council highlighted that since the outset of the pandemic, their approach has always been one of transparency. The mining industry acknowledges its responsibility to mitigate as far as possible the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce and among employees’ families and communities, and commits to seeking to minimise those impacts as far as possible.
Details of the measures adopted by the industry to protect the mineworkers who are travelling, which include periods of quarantine and testing, can be found at https://www.mineralscouncil.org.za/minerals-council-position-on-covid-19.