South Africa serves as a leading producer of platinum, palladium, chrome and gold, home to a mature mining sector that contributes to not only domestic, but also regional growth through the export of mineral resources. According to Mining Weekly, mining is a key driver of South Africa’s economic recovery – in which the sector contributes nine percent of GDP – and has warranted the prioritization of production continuity, as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes. The industry was notably impacted by the pandemic, largely due to its labor-intensive nature that resulted in a high risk of COVID-19 transmission, along with a decline in production due to lockdown restrictions and border closures. However, with gradual reductions in lockdown measures, South Africa’s mining industry is regaining its strength, focusing on economic recovery and industry revival.
South Africa recently commenced a country-wide rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, in which mineworkers have been identified as essential workers to be inoculated in the second phase of the country’s vaccination plan, after healthcare workers. Due to the economic necessity of the industry, mining operations have been prioritized, with workers second in line to receive the vaccine. In addition to operational benefits, the rollout of vaccines by the mining industry to its employees has presented the unique opportunity for the rollout of vaccines to integrated communities. Accordingly, mining companies nation-wide are stimulating both operational and community benefits that are expected to fast-track a COVID-19 recovery and generate socioeconomic growth.
COVID-19 has had a significant impact on South Africa’s mining industry, in which rising infections and imposed lockdown measures have resulted in operational disruptions and reduced output. With added logistical challenges making export difficult, government statistics showed that in April 2020, total mining production fell by more than 47% year-on-year. What’s more, mining communities were shown to be particularly at risk to COVID-19 outbreaks and have warranted the industry’s prioritization regarding a vaccination rollout. Despite these challenges, the sector remained resilient and has continued to persevere, backed by strong commodity prices. According to the Minerals Council of South Africa, both the Council and its members are in strong support of the government rollout strategy, as it is considered essential to ensuring operational continuity. As production begins to rise again, and vaccine rollouts are anticipated within the next few weeks, the industry carries an optimistic outlook.
Mining developments have created significant benefits for host communities, particularly concerning sustainable economic growth and poverty alleviation. Such projects have shown to bring about mutual benefits, in that community support contributes to operational continuity, and correspondingly, to infrastructural development, job creation and local capacity building.
Generally located in remote areas, mining sites and their operators have had to develop the necessary infrastructure for workers to live, including facilities for residence, healthcare, and food and water. Such developments have not only had a positive impact on the surrounding communities, but also demonstrated mining companies’ strategic priorities in assisting both the workforce and community vaccination rollouts. With years of experience combating other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, mining companies have utilized their on-site treatment facilities and healthcare workers to support the COVID-19 response.
“While government is primarily responsible for funding the vaccine rollout and is the single buyer, the industry can play a material role in accelerating the vaccination program on mines and in mining communities,” said Roger Baxter, CEO, Minerals Council, in an article by Reuters.
Dr. Thuthula Balfour, Head of Health at Minerals Council South Africa, told Reuters that the mining industry has the capacity to carry out an estimated 60,000 vaccinations per day, with the added potential to increase this figure to 80,000 per day. In addition to mineworkers, the industry has the capacity to vaccinate approximately 2.25 million people living in remote communities around mines. Accordingly, the mining industry is uniquely positioned to facilitate a COVID-19 response in hard-to-reach areas of the country, in which private sector companies have been identified to play a significant role in vaccine dissemination.