The rising number of people who test positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus in mines has put unions and mining companies on a collision course, with mining companies being accused of withholding information about infection rates and not caring about the health of employees.
Last week, Mponeng Gold Mine in Carletonville, Gauteng, reported 196 Covid-19 cases. It was forced to temporarily shut its doors and many of its workers have since been placed in quarantine facilities provided by the company.
In Limpopo, Sekhukhune district, which until recently had zero Covid-19 cases, has suddenly become the epicentre of infections in the province, following the re-opening of mines.
Sekhukhune now has 68 confirmed cases of Covid-19, followed by Capricorn (30), Waterberg (26), Vhembe (eight) and Mopani (seven).
The infection rate climbed steeply with the return of workers from Covid-19 hotspots throughout the country and from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.
The first case of Covid-19 was identified in Marula Mine in Burgersfort from a worker who comes from the Eastern Cape.
Meanwhile, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) secretary-general David Sipunzi has accused AngloGold Ashanti of concealing information regarding how many miners have been infected at Mponeng mine.
“The mine has lied about the number of infected miners underground. It says [the number is less than] 200, but we know that there are more members. [The mine does not] want to accept its fault; that it is putting our members at risk,” said Sipunzi.
He said he feared that the mine would continue to lie about the numbers, which would enable it to have a premature return to work.
Sipunzi warned that the union would take the matter to court if its members were adversely affected. “We will do whatever it takes to save our members from being infected. Nothing stops us from litigating on the matter,” he said.
In terms of lockdown regulations, employers are required to provide a workplace risk assessment plan that includes the provision of screening and testing facilities, sanitary and social distancing measures, and measures to protect vulnerable employees.
Sipunzi said they expected the mines to have done inspections to ensure that facilities had been properly sanitised before workers returned to work.
“All mine managers whose companies are not adhering to the Covid-19 regulations must be arrested. We will not allow a situation where our members and other workers are sacrificed for profits by heartless and evil mining companies,” he said.
Sipunzi has warned that they will advise NUM members to boycott work should they find the workplace unsafe for work, and warned against job and salary cuts.
“Our intention is first to engage with the companies to do thorough testing, failure to which we may [instruct our member to not enter] the workplace if they feel that it is dangerous.”
Mponeng had been operating on 50% capacity, with a workforce of 2 400 since it restarted operations on April 30.
A miner who is recovering from home told City Press that he was fearful for those around him.
“I was careful to ensure that I don’t catch this virus, but it caught up with me. I think what happened is that we can’t practice social distancing at work and we don’t know who we got it from.
“I am scared because I have children and don’t know if I have infected anyone in my house. I am recovering at home, even though I do not have any symptoms. Anything I feel must be in my head,” he said.
AngloGold spokesperson Chris Nthite said they had done 650 tests before the temporary closure of the mine. He said most of the positive cases were asymptotic, which suggests that the pandemic could have already infiltrated the surrounding communities in western Gauteng and beyond.
“In the mines, the workers need to work together in an enclosed space. It becomes difficult to enforce social distancing underground, but we are working on that before we reopen,” Nthite said.
He said he was not aware of when the mine would be able to resume work as they were still discussing ways to implement safety measures.
Gauteng health spokesperson Kwara Kekana told City Press that the rise in mine infections was a concern because the department was running out of test kits.
“There is a decline in testing figures owing to the shortage of supplies.
"We’re running into difficulties with various suppliers not being able to meet our demand, therefore the shortage in the test kits makes it difficult to get hold of every miner who has been infected. For example, out of 2 400 people we could only test 500.”
The situation in Limpopo has galvanised the health department and the Sekhukhune district Covid-19 council to take extraordinary measures to curb the spread of the virus in the mining communities, as some of the mineworkers do not stay in mine-owned residences but in the surrounding villages and townships.
Limpopo Health MEC Phophi Ramathuba has responded by launching a surge plan through which the department seeks to do target testing in hotspots.
“For instance, if one mineworker tests positive, then we target test all those around him to effectively arrest the spread.
“Through the plan, we are also profiling households to know the number of vulnerable people in a particular area,” said department spokesperson Neil Shikwambana.
He said the plan did not wait for someone to show symptoms before doing the test. According to the plan, each doctor is assigned 10 nurses, who are in turn each assigned 10 home-based caregivers. Each home-based caregiver has the responsibility for 160 households.
Limpopo’s Covid-19 cases stood at 140, with 76 recoveries and three deaths as of May 30.
Sekhukhune district mayor and chairperson of the Covid-19 council Stan Ramaila has met with mining bosses to devise ways to curb the spread of the virus.
Ramaila’s spokesperson, Moloko Moloto, said the mining bosses had made a few undertakings to improve working conditions, including screening and testing all mine employees, and providing quarantine sites at the mines, as well as providing transport for those workers who did not reside in mine hostels.
“The workers will be screened before getting into their transport and before entering the mine. The council pleaded with the mines to not recall their workers from SADC countries and Covid-19 hotspots from around the country,” Moloto said.
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