It seems like it’s becoming a common assumption that the mining industry is at the “epicentre” of the Covid-19 coronavirus in South Africa. We would like to explain why this is not the case.
In fact, it is the very extensive precautionary measures being taken by the industry that’s giving rise to this mistaken assumption.
It is possible that this assumption is being drawn because of the very transparent approach the industry, knowing that it will always be under scrutiny, is taking to its disclosure about Covid-19 developments.
The Minerals Council of SA publishes a daily update of the number of cases that have been identified in the industry – 750 at the time of writing on Tuesday.
In addition, mining companies have promptly been making public announcements when clusters of infections have been diagnosed at particular operations. There have been five such situations over the past four weeks.
There is no other sector in South Africa that provides such detailed information other than the hospital sector, perhaps in a different way.
More importantly, no other sector comes close to matching these two in the intensity of the Covid-19 precautionary measures taken in respect of employees. And this may explain why these mistaken perceptions have arisen about Covid-19 in the mining industry.
We acknowledge that there have 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, it is wrong to draw from that the conclusion that mining is at the epicentre of the virus.
Of the industry’s 450 000 total workforce, more than 240 000 miners are now back at work. Every single mineworker who left during the national lockdown was carefully screened on their return to work. And each and every mineworker at work is screened for the virus before every shift.
In line with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases protocols, any individual showing any symptoms or who has been exposed to someone known to be Covid-19 positive, is sent for a test.
Many more employees are tested, for example, those working in high traffic areas. And there is random testing too, to help us understand the nature of the infection, and also to try and identify some of those who are infected but who show no symptoms of the illness.
As is well known, this applies to a large proportion of infected people.
Where an individual employee tests positive, mines have tracking and tracing systems in place so that all those who have come into contact with the infected person are screened and, where indicated, tested too.
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.
Given all this daily, precautionary work, it is surely not surprising that the mining industry is uncovering proportionately more cases of Covid-19 than is the case in businesses where screening is less intensive, or in communities where screening is limited and random so that many cases that exist are not being diagnosed at all, and never will be.
It would only be possible to compare the incidence of Covid-19 in mining with the country’s incidence if every individual was being screened every day, and all positive cases were followed up with tracking and tracing.
If the rest of the population were being scanned and, if necessary, tested at the same intensity as in mining, there would be a sharp rise in reported cases in other parts of the economy and society.
As it is, we believe the intensive daily screening of mineworkers, and the thorough 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 in every workplace.
The industry has also taken a very cautious approach to bringing back to the workplace those employees defined as vulnerable, those aged over 60 or with comorbidities.
Regarding the clusters of infections, it is true that this has happened and has contributed to high incidences at particular operations. However, this is also no different from trends seen in some other workplaces and in particular communities. Clusters of infections occur in many different places.
Further, mines are part of communities. It is likely that those clusters similarly exist in the communities surrounding those particular mining operations. The difference is that employees have been tested, community members have not been.
To further limit the spread of the virus, mines have in place quarantine and isolation facilities for use when needed, including for miners being brought back from their distant homes.
What is unfortunate about the incorrect assertions that mining is the epicentre of Covid-19 is that they spread unnecessary fear among mineworkers and in their communities.
We prefer to remain focused on a collective effort to minimise 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 industry is also working to extend its responses into mining communities to limit the spread of the virus and to address the economic consequences that have been so difficult for those communities. It is determined to play its part in saving lives and livelihoods, even as Covid-19 continues its inevitable spread through the country.
Dr Balfour is the head of health at the Minerals Council SA