Mining exempt from lockdown: Are the employees and communities safe?

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As COVID-19 spreads around the world, governments are responding by putting in place measures aimed at curbing the novel virus. In Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced a 21 day lockdown which has been extended by 14 days. When the extension was announced, the state-controlled newspaper, The Herald, woke up with a screaming headline, “Lockdown extended, but economy restarts”[1]. The headline exposed a familiar underhand neoliberal driven review of the initial measures of the lockdown. This week’s situation update looks at the impact of the invisible hand of capitalism, which is mortgaging human health and safety in mines and mining affected communities for profits, as the nation grapples to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the majority of poverty stricken Zimbabweans were worried – emotionally and economically – with balancing between complying with lockdown and sustaining their livelihoods, capitalists in the extractive sector were scheming and influencing amendments to the Statutory Instrument 83/2020 Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) Order, 2020. As they prey on Zimbabwe’s natural resources, the capitalists successfully pushed for the relaxation of the lockdown to ward off disruptions to their wealth extraction machinery during this crisis. Such an amendment has been construed as a subtle attempt to cushion capitalists from the COVID-19-induced economic shock that has visibly stalled business and industry across the globe. This is also seen as a scheme to guarantee survival of the capitalists after the COVID-19 pandemic. The amendment produced Statutory Instrument 94/2020 Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) Order, 2020, which pushed the boundaries of World Health Organisation (WHO) standards, just to ensure that the capitalists continue extracting  Zimbabwe’s resources even in a context that increases workers’ and communities’ risks to the Covid-19 virus.

Relaxing the rules for the mining industry, President Mnangagwa said “government is acutely aware of the need to keep the economy running . . .” and has decided to “allow the mining sector to resume or scale up operations.” He added; “I have now directed the Ministries of Health and Child Care, and that of Mines and Mining Development to work closely to ensure the workforce in the mining sector is immediately screened and tested ahead of resumed operations. Further, to the extent possible I have directed that workers in the mining sector to remain within the precincts of their accommodation at workplaces for the duration of the lockdown.” However, a survey by the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) indicates that mining employees have not been tested, yet some companies have resumed operations. In Darwendale, Chrome mining companies were seen extracting the ore, while in Hwange, coal mining companies have increased their workforce before even testing those who were off duty, an indication that neoliberalism in collusion with the political elites and capitalists use moments of crisis to push for changes that feed their appetite for wealth. In Guruve and Zvishavane, chrome mining companies are operating without due care for the employees and the surrounding communities because some workers continue to knock off after work, going back to their families.

It emerged this week that Sakunda Holdings and the Chinese business community procured[2] medical equipment, protective personal equipment, ventilators as well as Chinese and western medicine to fight COVID-19 in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe and China have over the years signed several mining deals in the chrome and gold sector while Sakunda Holdings, through its Landela Mining Ventures is into gold and platinum mining[3]. In the context of Covid-19 lockdown measures, mining is not an essential service. It is a capitalist venture thriving through exploitation of the poor and vulnerable together with their governments, in collusion with the political leadership. Opening the non-essential mining sector in this time of crisis is mortgaging the health and safety of the communities hosting extractive industries, in return for donations from the mining companies. By designating mining as an essential service during this COVID-19 crisis, the government and mining companies are putting workers and communities at greater risk. Such a move also sends a message that mining takes precedence over human safety during this crisis.

The following points flag out the risks posed by mining in this COVID-19 crisis:

  • Mines are isolated with limited health resources and facilities that lack capacity to test COVID-19 among workers. Some mining companies are too profit-seeking, hence lack the motive to invest in protective wear and sanitation facilities for the workers.
  • Mines tend to confine and congest workers within closed spaces thereby increasing chances of human-to-human contact. Employees congregate in areas of work, and travel in close proximity to each other. As mining often involves physical activity, there could be a high degree of exposure to the virus simply through contact with people, machinery and equipment. Mining companies providing accommodation for their employees such as most Chinese owned companies in Hwange, compel workers to share facilities for eating, sleeping and bathing. As such, social distancing becomes difficult, if not impossible to practise, thereby increasing the risk of viral transmission.
  • Mining workforces are transitory, that is, highly mobile and therefore the possibility of COVID-19 entering rural remote and vulnerable communities from mine workforce is great. Hwange Colliery Company Limited workers stay in locations outside the company premises. They go back to their homes every evening to be with their families yet during the day they interact with a lot of transient staff and contractors coming to collect coal from the mine.
  • Exploration camps are commonly makeshift settings with mine staff that depend on local facilities for basic services. In Sese area of Chivi district in Masvingo Province, where Murowa Diamonds is doing some exploratory work, the company has deployed a skeletal staff to guard their equipment and machinery. This staff is always interacting with the community as they search for basics from local shops. Murowa Diamonds team often drives to the main premises within the province to collect food and mingle with local people.
  • Miners are invariably predisposed to harmful substances and conditions that compromise their immunity, thereby making them vulnerable to viral infections. The harmful substances include chemicals and dust from mining operation that cause respiratory and lung diseases. Heavy metal toxicity is another health hazard found in mines. There have been complaints of pneumoconiosis and black lung disease among people from Hwange who attribute the problem to their proximity to coal mines. Such conditions make miners and mining affected communities vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • Clean water is scarce in the mines and communities around the mines. This is because  mining either consumes much of the available water or pollutes large amounts of water making it unavailable or dangerous for human use. Mining companies in Hwange have heavily polluted Deka River which is a source of water for peripheral communities located along that river. This leaves local families with little or no water for basic hygiene such as hand-washing during this crisis.

Thus, capitalism, represented by mining in Zimbabwe has taken advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to launch an assault on human rights, accountability and transparency by pooh-poohing people’s trauma and coerce the political elite to enact measures favourable to them. Extractive industries in Zimbabwe have managed to flex their muscle while ordinary citizens who survive from hand to mouth continue to be arrested for allegedly breaching lockdown measures, with more than 10,000 people having been arrested so far[4]. Although government promised to pay out ZWL200 cushioning allowance per vulnerable households, no one from CNRG’s project sites, has confirmed receiving the money to date. Information gathered from CNRG project sites indicates that communities hosting extractive industries are facing massive starvation and food relief programmes are not covering everyone. In Arda Transau, only 250 people out of 3000 and 973 people out of 1685 in Sese area of Chivi, have received a 50kg of maize per household.

CNRG therefore calls on the government of Zimbabwe to:

  • Minimise the operations of mining companies during the lockdown except those that are part of the essential services. Operating companies should meet the WHO recommended guidelines which include, putting in place risk-mitigating measures, rapidly identifying any cases of the virus, ensuring isolation and contact tracing. The companies must provide masks, sanitizers and testing kits as well as equipment such as temperature monitors for employees.
  • Ensure mining companies supporting essential services such as electricity generation are closely monitored so that they adhere to set guidelines. Mining companies should prioritise health care services for their workers by ensuring that company health facilities are operational and adequately equipped to deal with Covid-19 cases from the mines and from surrounding communities or villages.
  • Ensure mining companies operating during Covid-19 lockdown reasonably remunerate workers who are risking their health and lives to protect the capital of the mine owners.
  • Compile a database of all the companies which have tested their employees. Data of employees tested at mine sites should be added to the national Covid-19 database.
  • Ensure that companies provide decent accommodation to their employees to minimise staff movements and contact with external community members.
  • Devise feasible and effective strategies of distributing the social welfare cushioning allowances to vulnerable families in mining affected communities, some who do not even have mobile phones to access the information.

[1] https://www.herald.co.zw/lockdown-extended-but-economy-restarts/

[2] https://dailynews.co.zw/sakunda-chinese-donate-towards-covid-19-fight/

[3] https://www.newsday.co.zw/2019/10/tagwirei-swoops-on-us500m-platinum-project/

[4] https://www.chronicle.co.zw/bulawayo-tops-lockdown-violation-arrests/

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