When the first Covid-19 cases were reported in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) in March 2020, no one could have prepared for the devastation that the virus would bring. Countries responded swiftly (and rightly so) to the global public health emergency but this has had unintended consequences as a result of the ongoing economic fallout that followed.
The well-intended safety measures to minimise the spread of Covid-19, including a ban on most normal economic and social activities, have affected different populations in different ways. Mining communities are among those who have been disproportionally impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. As local and global economies slowed down in response to severe lockdown restrictions, mining communities were deprived of their livelihoods and their sources of income dried up.
Most countries allowed mining companies to operate with increased safety precautions during most of 2020, but this excluded many small-scale and artisanal miners who do not enjoy the same support as big industry. Small-scale miners found their movement restricted by the lockdown regulations, and as a result, are unable to continue production or distribution. The compromise in livelihoods has seen more mining families than ever before being thrust into poverty.
Despite the challenges that persist, Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW) applauds mining companies for their role during the first wave in supporting SADC governments in their efforts to overcome the turbulence of the past year. For a period in 2020, the African continent appeared to have weathered the storm of the first wave without a significant loss of life, in comparison to other countries with more robust healthcare systems. This relief has been short-lived as the second wave of the pandemic has proved to be more forceful and deadlier than the first. The early days of 2021 tell us that what we witnessed last year could have been just a curtain-raiser as more countries in the region have reported a sharp increase in the number of cases and overwhelming numbers of deaths. The second wave is jeopardizing economic recovery plans and creating uncertainty within the commodity markets.
While the World Health Organisation is recommending urgent collective action, observers caution against a strict 2020-style lockdown for Africa. Although talks of another lockdown are unpalatable for economic reasons, governments have a responsibility to act in the best interests of their citizens. More concerning on the continent is the mutation of the virus with the discoveries of new Covid-19 variants that have been spreading at a rapid rate, especially in South Africa. In January 2021 South Africa’s president announced that the country will temporarily close 20 land border posts as a measure to stop the spread of the virus. SARW is concerned about what this means for mineworkers and mining communities.
According to reports in the South African media, about 2000 workers of Impala Platinum Mine have tested positive for Covid-19, with the number of fatalities reaching 19 to date. This suggests that the virus could also be destroying the communities where these mineworkers live. It raises questions about whether mining companies could and should be doing more to protect mining communities.
As the virus shows no signs of slowing down, governments all over the world have been working to secure available vaccine doses for their citizens. SARW would like to see mining companies make a commitment to ensuring that mining communities and their employees receive the vaccine once it becomes available. The vaccine is seen as the only solution to containing the virus. As countries race to secure vaccines for their citizens, SARW would like to urge SADC governments to ensure a just distribution of the vaccine and to make sure that marginalised mining communities are not abandoned. We also encourage mines to support African governments’ vaccine procurement efforts and, as we wait for the vaccines to become widely available, to ensure that all employees and the communities in which they live are fully protected against the Covid-19.
Most importantly, we urge the mining sector to continue supporting mining communities to ensure that they are not left behind in economic recovery plans after the Covid-19 crisis. SARW wants to encourage the sector to continue seeking new and effective ways of bringing the communities from whose land they are extracting natural resources into conversations that facilitate their economic recovery. On its part, SARW will continue to monitor the conduct of all players in the mining sector, and expose any violations of the rights of workers and mining communities.