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Miners become medics

or almost three months, COVID-19 has devastated the healthcare systems of some of the world’s most developed countries, killing thousands of people every day since it spread from its epicentre in China in January. The virus’ 14-day incubation period means that it can quickly spread among unsuspecting, asymptomatic people, putting businesses with large workforces such as mining companies at particularly high risk. As Gertrude Musunka, Health Programs and Projects Advisor for Kansanshi Mining Plc and Kalumbila Minerals Limited (‘FQM Zambia’) put it, “It only takes one employee to bring an infection to the site, and then we have problems.” 

Preventing the spread of infection is the most powerful tool that Zambia has to avoid a crisis that would cripple both the economy, and the health and wellbeing of the country at large. So, what are mining companies in Zambia’s North-Western Province doing to prevent the spread of COVID-19? 

Knowledge is power

FQM Zambia didn’t waste any time at all in equipping its workforce with information about COVID-19, explains Musunka. “We started our programs when the COVID-19 cases were still in China. We’ve been ahead of the game; we’ve been educating our employees from Day 1.” 

The company weighed up the inherent risks and began carrying out community sensitisation in the areas around Solwezi and Kalumbila right away. “We recognised the fact that avoiding a medical disaster in future lies in what we do now. Then, when the Ministry of Health’s Epidemic Preparedness Committee was formed, we joined that.” 

“We recognised the fact that avoiding a medical disaster in future lies in what we do now. Then, when the Ministry of Health’s Epidemic Preparedness Committee was formed, we joined that.”

Ensuring that people can access information in their mother tongue is central to any successful public health campaign. Barrick Lumwana has stepped in to supplement the efforts of Kalumbila District’s COVID-19 Preparedness Committee by printing and distributing an increased number of awareness brochures in the local Kaonde language. 

Supporting Government’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has, in fact, been central to both Barrick Lumwana and FQM Zambia’s approach. 

“We realised that it didn’t make sense for us to only roll out measures at the mine and at the district level,” says Nathan Chishimba, Barrick Gold Corporation’s country manager for Zambia. “We also had to look at COVID-19 prevention and awareness at the provincial and national level.”

An FQM Zambia COVID-19 sensitisation program in progress

Putting your money where your mouth is

On 7 April, Barrick Lumwana pledged $530 000 (approximately K9.8 million at the current exchange rate) towards containing COVID-19. “As a committed partner to Zambia, we would like to make a contribution to the government’s fight against the pandemic,” Chishimba announced. “We are consequently funding the provision of medical equipment to the value of $340,000 at the national level, $100,000 for the North-Western province and $90,000 for the Kalumbila district.”

On 1 April, FQM’s Kalumbila Minerals Limited pledged to donate 50% (K620, 201.25) of the district’s total epidemic preparedness and response budget (K1.2 million), with Assistant General Manager Junior Keyser’s assurance that this is a fight which everyone is in together.

Kansanshi Mining Plc initially made its own pledge of $120 000 (approximately K2.2 million), in addition to Kalumbila Mine’s contribution. But, since Kansanshi’s team got started, some of the costs have spiralled and the company has also undertaken to purchase additional equipment including a GeneXpert COVID-19 test machine, currently on its way from Sweden.

“Our projected expenditure was $120 000,” says Musunka, “But, knowing what we know now, our calculations are standing at about $400 000 (K7.4 million).”

Where is the money going?

“Working with the Ministry of Health, we’ve identified critical supplies to combat the pandemic,” says Chishimba. “As we speak, we’ve triggered our regional supply chain management to procure a range of about 54 items which we’ll be supporting the government with — including ventilators, respirators, hazmat suits, hand sanitiser, face masks, remote thermometers, and so on. The package that we’ve rolled out for the government at the national level comes to $340 000.” The funds are being allocated in consultation with Government, rather than cash being handed over.

The mine is also working with Kalumbila’s provincial Director of Health, who has earmarked areas where they need assistance. At the district level, Barrick Lumwana is responding to a request to construct an isolation centre for COVID-19 patients.

FQM Zambia has undertaken a major construction project, too. After Government closed all schools and colleges to prevent the spread of infection, Solwezi Nurses Home was designated for renovation as an isolation facility. Funds have also been allocated to stocking the isolation facility with the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as goggles, gowns, and examination gloves. Beds for an Intensive Care Unit, oxygen concentrators, and certain medication are being bought, too.

“COVID-19 is a public health disease, so we’re following the policy and regulatory framework of the Ministry of Health,” says Musunka. “When you’re dealing with anything that is of public health importance, you need to take a population-level approach. That means, instead of focusing on ourselves, we are part of the Provincial and District response.”

Protecting employees

Chishimba says that a robust intervention strategy is being followed at Barrick Lumwana Mine. “We’ve limited the rotation of staff going on and off site, and have a rigorous visitor management and monitoring program, with our security department reporting all the visitors that come onto site daily. Temperature monitoring is also being done on a daily basis. In the rare instances where employees do return from other parts of the country, they are required to be quarantined for 14 days before they report to the workplace.”

“Working with the Ministry of Health, we’ve identified critical supplies to combat the pandemic. The package that we’ve rolled out at the national level comes to $340 000.”

Daily temperature monitoring and mandatory quarantine for staff who have travelled recently is also ‘the new normal’ at FQM’s Kansanshi and Kalumbila mines. “If somebody is flagged with a temperature, they follow a certain protocol to ensure we are preventing any potential COVID-19 patients from entering the mine site,” says Musunka. “In addition, we’re offering health screening at the mines’ borders, to give our employees an opportunity to get tested — and treated — for malaria. We have a lot of asymptomatic malaria in our environment, and we don’t know the impact of COVID-19-malaria comorbidity, so we don’t want anybody to risk that. We’re taking a very holistic, proactive approach to all of this.”

But how do you proactively identify potential COVID-19 cases beyond the workforce, one might wonder.

“We’ve been driving around, carrying out disease surveillance within the communities around the mines so that when there’s an alert [of a suspected case], we can obtain samples and transport them to Lusaka,” explains Musunka. “And when I say ‘we’, I’m talking about the Ministry of Health and us, because FQM Zambia doesn’t have a mandate — we’re supporting what Government is doing.” 

The company undertook to repair an ambulance from Solwezi General Hospital, at a cost of $4 900, to serve this purpose.

Protecting and empowering communities

“In addition to our interventions on site, we’ve gone into the communities, where we’ve installed hand-washing stations, and are complementing the local health authorities’ COVID-19 sensitisation efforts,” says Chishimba. “Our interventions extend to all of the areas where we currently undertake our CSR around the mine” — including Mutanda Secondary School, where Barrick Lumwana has been running a scholarship program for several years.

Kansanshi and Kalumbila’s interventions have also extended far beyond their sites. “We are distributing Information Education Communication (IEC) materials in the community at large,” says Musunka. “We’ve also committed to doing education programs outside of the [official] mine-supported areas, such as in communities that we’ve consistently ‘adopted’ in Kalumbila and Kansanshi.”

Earlier this month, FQM Zambia contracted women in communities surrounding its operations in Solwezi and Kalumbila Districts to make Ministry of Health-approved face masks to prevent the spread of the virus. Each of the company’s employees will receive two masks. 

The ‘new normal’

“We have to be cautious that people don’t think masks will do all the magic,” warns Musunka, who emphasises that social distancing, hand hygiene and environmental hygiene need to be observed in conjunction with correct mask-wearing. Chishimba says that Barrick Lumwana is adhering very closely to the guidelines that have been issued at corporate level, including social distancing, while trying to continue operating as normally as possible.

“The beauty is that we’re in a very good position at FQM because, historically, we’ve always employed health care professionals,” says Musunka. “My role revolves around dealing with public health issues, for instance, so it doesn’t take attention away from the people who should be doing mining.”

In expressing his appreciation for the mining company’s contribution, Kalumbila District Commissioner Robinson Kalota said that, even if the Ministry of Health is leading, the fight against COVID-19 is a responsibility for everyone. “I am very delighted by this gesture [of financial support] as it shows what we can achieve by working together.”

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