Minerals Council South Africa health head Dr Thuthula Balfour explains that the Minerals Council and its members recognised early on that the Eastern Cape would need assistance in addressing Covid-19. It is a mining-affected province, without mines. Historically, the industry has drawn many thousands of employees from the province and currently around 15% of members’ current workforce originate from the Eastern Cape.
“The Eastern Cape is one of the poorest provinces in the country. It suffers from a lack of infrastructure, and is known to be under- resourced in terms of healthcare facilities, supplies and personnel.
“As part of the mining industry’s collaborative approach to addressing `Covid-19, there had been a lot of interaction between mining companies and provincial governments where mining activities take place including the North West, Gauteng, Free State, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape, with companies providing assistance in various forms including personal protective equipment. N95 masks were not available given global demand, but masks used in the mining industry are almost at the same efficiency, so mining companies offered assistance with masks, established field hospitals, assisted in increasing testing capacity, provided food parcels, sanitised schools and the like.
“In July, the board agreed to the oxygen initiative, in which thirteen members contributed R4.7-million towards oxygen and oxygen- related products for the Eastern Cape.”
The companies comprised African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American (representing De Beers, Kumba Iron Ore, Anglo American Coal and Anglo American Platinum), AngloGold Ashanti, Exxaro, Fraser Alexander, Glencore Alloys, Gold Fields, Harmony, Impala Platinum, Northam Platinum, Royal Bafokeng Platinum, Seriti and Sibanye-Stillwater.
Balfour explains that the epidemic started in the Western Cape and Gauteng, because of the prevalence of international travel to and from those provinces. “Initially, cases in the Western Cape grew markedly, and because of the links and movement between it and the Eastern Cape, which were historically the same province, it spread fairly quickly there as well.”
She notes that the Minerals Council had approached the provincial government asking how it could best assist in the province’s Covid-19 response. “We agreed on oxygen. At that point it had become clear that the determining factor between life and death for people who had contracted Covid-19 was access to oxygen.”
Balfour explains that the province had been preparing to roll out additional oxygen infrastructure and reticulation, where possible, and required oxygen-related accessories. Therefore, the funds were spent on products such as oxygen concentrators, rebreather masks, oxygen flow meters, oxygen regulators, re-breathable masks, oxygen nasal cannulas and oximeters.
By the end of September, 150 oxygen concentrators, 250 circuit full face masks for CPAP ventilators, 450 fingerprint pulse oximeters, 900 batteries, 200 oxygen regulators, 30 000 oxygen nasal cannulas, 30 000 rebreather masks and 49 pulse oximeter desktops had been delivered to hospitals located in the areas identified for particular support including the Chris Hani and OR Tambo regions, which are key labour-sending areas for mining.
However, Balfour stresses that the Minerals Council is not pedantic about which Eastern Cape hospitals receive the equipment, and that the province can allocate equipment to other hospitals if needed.
Balfour notes that oximeters in particular were key. “A lot of people felt well and then decompensated markedly. If they had had an instrument to measure their oxygenation, they would have seen that their bodies weren’t receiving or retaining sufficient amounts of oxygen. More oximeters might have prevented more people from going into reparatory distress, and perhaps this could have prevented some deaths.”
She adds that the Minerals Council ran the procurement process, having received the pertinent codes and specifications from the Eastern Cape Department of Health (DoH).
Balfour notes that the equipment has been delivered and distributed to various hospitals in the two districts. This process was also overseen by a Minerals Council representative.
Importantly, “when the pandemic begins to wane, the equipment will still be available. I think that Covid-19 highlighted the gaps in the system. It became evident that most South African hospitals didn’t have sufficient oxygen supply and lacked basic equipment. It is clear that we need to re-evaluate our health systems and see how we can improve.”
She believes that the Minerals Council and its members have made a “real and meaningful difference in a way and a place that not many others could make on a relatively large scale”.
At the September 16 handover, Eastern Cape DoH head Dr Thobile Mbengashe noted: “We welcome the generous contribution made by the Minerals Council and its members in the fight against Covid-19.
“With TB being among the comorbidities that are the causal factors of Covid-19 deaths, and the lungs in many cases the most affected organ, oxygen is what is most needed. The equipment donated through this initiative will go a long way in helping us in our fight against Covid-19.”