Mining is crucial for prosperity and human development as it provides revenue for the development of infrastructure in different sectors. As a powerful engine for socio-economic growth, mining revenue in Africa has the potential to alleviate poverty and ensure wealth distribution, particularly from governments to communities impacted by mining operations. One key area where mining can also have a transformative developmental impact is in health.
Mining operations can create health risks for mineworkers, and also create social phenomena such as overcrowded settlements such as shanty towns, risky behaviors including alcohol abuse, sexual violence and multiple sexual partners, and migration across borders, which all contribute to the spread of diseases. By complying with national laws, adhering to best practices in occupational health and safety, improving living conditions for mineworkers, providing adequate health services and investing in preventative measures, mining companies can play a crucial role in minimizing the spread of diseases.
Honorable Aaron Motsoaledi, minister of heath for South Africa, emphasized that the sense of urgency for collaborative action now is clear.
“The time has arrived…we are dealing with a world crisis,” he said. “We are all vulnerable to TB, even more so than HIV and AIDS. It would be better for mining companies to work with us the health sector as TB is a community disease.”
The panel noted the statistics of TB in the mining sector in Sub-Saharan Africa, pointing out that with 33% of TB deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa attributable to the mining industry, the incidence of infection within the mining sector is 2,500 to 3,000 per 100,000 population. In comparison, the WHO threshold for a medical emergency is 250 per 100,000. In 2009, there were 1,400 fatalities from TB compared to 167 fatalities from mining accidents. Despite the statistics, Minister Motsoaledi said, the response to 1,400 mine workers deaths from TB pales in comparison to the reaction to 167 deaths from mining accidents.
Recognizing the importance of investing in health, John Sisay, CEO of Sierra Rutile in Sierra Leone, stressed that mining companies primarily focused on weighing compliance and corporate affairs with the productivity of their labor. Ultimately, it is the profitability of mining operations that determines management actions, an inescapable reality of business, he said.
This sentiment was reiterated by Ismael Diakite, Managing Director of Rio Tinto in Guinea who spoke of how their business filled gaps in the delivery of health services during the Ebola crisis, which meant they kept their mines Ebola-free, but conceded this was done to prevent mining operations from collapsing.
Honorable Motsoaledi and the Deputy Minister of Mineral Resources, Honorable Godfrey Oliphant, deputy minister of Mineral Resources for South Africa, both urged mining companies to apply international best practice in occupational health and safety and to partner with ministries of health to tackle the fundamental challenge of weak health systems in Africa. Honorable Motsoaledi further proposed a regional Centre for Disease Control (CDC) that would proactively manage and prevent the spread of disease in the region.
The tremendous value that mining companies offer, including the agility to move quickly in delivering key services in times of crisis, was underscored by Honorable Sam Russ, Deputy Minister for Operations at the Liberia Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy. For this reason, he advocated a paradigm shift in the way that the relationship between government and mining companies has been traditionally viewed to allow for more dynamic, sustainable, and long-term public-private partnerships that maintain corporate profitability but also advance national development goals.
Five key messages emerged from this panel discussion:
- The enforcement of occupational health and safety standards remains a challenge
- Protecting the health of local communities is a shared responsibility
- Crisis’s such as Ebola can provide opportunities for collaboration
- Partnerships and stakeholder commitment are necessary to sustain progress
- Health systems strengthening is core to transformative results
Patrick Osewe, program leader for the WBG, said to effectively address health challenges in the mines, mining companies need to work in tandem with governments to strengthen community health systems and minimize health risks to mining operations and communities.
The discussion concluded with an agreement that there is great value in a collaborative approach towards addressing the spread of disease. The key is to act in accordance with international best practice and form various stronger, more effective and long-term partnerships between the mining companies, government, trade unions or mineworkers associations and communities to effectively address the complex issue of disease prevention in mining operations as well as in communities.