Industry body, the Minerals Council South Africa, says it takes issue with a narrative that appears to be developing in some quarters labelling the mining industry as an “epicentre” of Covid-19.
In a June 9 statement, it said this idea was often raised in newspaper reports or by government officials. It said these statements often lacked a proper understanding of the precautionary processes implemented by the industry which gave rise to the data on which these assumptions were based.
The council asserted that these assertions were not only inaccurate, but that they spread fear among mineworkers and the communities in which they reside or come from.
The council called for the focus to be on the country’s 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 the pandemic.
It indicated that the major issues that gave rise to the perception that the mining industry was the epicentre of Covid-19 were, firstly, that there was a steady increase in the number of Covid-19 infections in the industry and, secondly, that there had been a number of isolated clusters of infections at particular mines.
With regard to the first point, the council conceded 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, it said that it would be wrong to assume from this that mining was more prone to the spread of the virus than the population as a whole.
The council noted that there were more than 230 000 miners currently back at work, with every mineworker screened on their first return to work post the hard lockdown, and every worker screened for the virus prior to every shift he or she works.
In accordance with the National Institute of Communicable Diseases' 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 is conducted to understand the nature of infection, stated the council.
“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," the council stated.
Further, many of the cases identified in the mining industry had been identified even though the individuals were asymptomatic or showing only mild symptoms.
In some of the clusters identified in mining, up to 95% of those who tested positive had 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,” said the council.
Secondly, the council said that the clusters of infections in the mining industry were, as an epidemiological phenomenon, no different from trends 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, surrounding community members have not been,” it said.
Finally, it mentioned that the high quality of care offered to mining employees who do contract the virus could be found in the fact that only one mineworker out of the 679 cases detected as at June 9 had died of Covid-19.
“That was a cause of grief for the family, friends and colleagues of the deceased individual who contracted the illness and passed away during lockdown. However, the industry is gratified that the Covid-19 death rate of miners is far lower than that for similar age groups in the country as a whole.
"The industry has taken a very cautious approach to taking extra measures for individuals who may be at greater risk if they get infected, not only delaying their return to work, but also in ensuing that they have pre-emptive and supportive medical care to ensure that their comorbidities do not place them at risk.
"Since the outset of the pandemic, the Minerals Council’s 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,” said the council.