Having recognised that fundamental research is critical to supporting the mining industry and others in dealing with the impact of Covid-19, the Minerals Council South Africa’s CEO Zero Harm Forum reallocated research funding to focus on three Covid-19-related areas.
Minerals Council head of health Dr Thuthula Balfour notes that the Minerals Council engaged Aurum Institute to conduct an analysis of the cases and deaths suffered until end July 2020.
The analysis will improve and accelerate learnings in support of the Minerals Council’s Covid-19 response and surveillance. It comprised two phases aimed at reviewing and analysing the data collected by Minerals Council members, and reviewing the case files of up to 2 000 individuals who have tested positive across the mining industry to characterise the cases and determine similarities between different cases and possible areas of transmission and high risk.
It also commissioned University of South Africa to conduct a study of the effectiveness of all the control measures in place across the mining industry and whether they are achieving the intended objectives and what improvements are required.
Balfour notes that analysis found that, in line with global trends, females tended to be at higher risk, but that their rate of mortality was not directly proportional to the number of cases, meaning that while more women tended to contract the disease, proportionally, males were more likely to die.
“We have high levels of comorbidities in South Africa, about 20% of the adult population is HIV positive. If you look at people over 40, about 20% have hypertension, especially among black people. The country also ranks poorly when one looks at international rankings on the prevalence of obesity.
“The analysis found that people with obesity were high-risk and that if they contracted the disease, they were more likely to die. Significant numbers, about 20% to 30% of employees have one or more comorbidities,” Balfour notes.
She explains that even before the findings were available, the Minerals Council advised members to provide prophylactic intervention for vulnerable people. “Based on what we knew about the disease at the time, we suggested that mining companies secure flu vaccines for vulnerable employees. The thinking was that, since the pandemic was likely to peak in South Africa during flu season, at the very least vulnerable employees would not contract both influenza and Covid-19.”
Moreover, in some instances, companies provided supplements, such as zinc, and vitamins C and D to help boost immune systems. Companies also tried to ensure that employees continued to tightly manage their chronic health conditions, such as HIV, TB or diabetes.
Balfour notes that companies were required to risk-rank employees, using a ‘traffic-light’ system, where green employees were, for example, under 40 with no comorbidities and red employees were over 60 and/or had multiple comorbidities. “It was left to the companies to decide when to bring employees back as the country progressed through the various levels of lockdown. However, the idea was that ‘green’ employees would return first.”
She notes that the next phase of analysis will look at seroprevalence, or the number of people who developed antibodies, at two mines. She comments that she hopes this research will add to the developing body of knowledge on Covid-19 adding that this is just another way in which the Minerals Council, and the mining industry, is contributing to the fight against Covid-19.
Some of the findings were used to assist in the development of field guides – the second of the research focus areas. The ‘Within the Mine Gate Behaviour Change Field Guide’, published in July, focused on sharing leading practices and lessons to change behaviour among employees, while the ‘Beyond the Mine Gate Behaviour Change Field Guide’, published last month, looked at affecting behaviour in communities.
The guides were developed through consultation with mining companies and behaviour change experts.
Balfour notes that the geographic information mapping system – the third focus area – was developed to inform decisions and mitigate the risks associated with transmission. The system outlines the prevalence of transmissions in communities and provides an overview of the coping mechanisms in place in different areas, such as hospitals and clinics.
She concludes that: “when there was talk of this disease in late December, I’m not sure anyone appreciated the scale of disruption it would cause. I believe that the South African government chose the right path, given the circumstances. Each country had to decide on a path that best suited it, and looking at the fatality rate, and based on the initial projections, the country has fared better than initially expected. As the mining industry we have come through fairly well, with cases declining rapidly and a case fatality rate that is about half the national one. We will however remain vigilant. ”