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Covid-19, security and mining in Africa

By Lisa Sharland

The security situation in parts of Africa was of concern to Australian mining companies long before Covid-19 was present on the continent. In 2019, the rapid deterioration of security across West Africa in particular, had prompted the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to engage with Australian mining companies operating in the region to ensure they were seized of the potential risks to their operations. Of increasing concern was the potential spread of terrorist threats further south in the region, to Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. While Australian mining and services companies were already seized of the risks of operating in the region, a sophisticated attack on a Canadian-owned mining company transport convoy in Burkina Faso in November 2019, which killed 37 and wounded 60 others, sounded another wake-up call about the dangers of operating in the region. And this is only likely to get worse as Covid-19 and government responses to it exacerbate some of the drivers of conflict on the continent.

Across the globe, countries and organisations have been grappling with how to respond to the Covid-19 crisis. As of early October, more than eight million people across the global have been infected, with more than one million people dying from the virus. According to Africa’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention as of 13 October, there have been just over 1.5 million cases on the continent, with over 38,000 deaths, representing around 4% of globally reported cases. Compared to countries in Europe and the United States, the continent of more than 1.2 billion people has fared better in limiting the spread of the virus throughout its population. However, as with other parts of the globe, there are concerns that those numbers may spike again as restrictions are relaxed in parts of the continent and people become more complacent in this ‘new normal’.

Unfortunately, as in other parts of the world, Covid-19 is likely to exacerbate the risk of further conflict and instability on the continent. In West Africa, Mali was one of the last countries across the globe to record a case of Covid-19, however insecurity has increased across the country as a consequence of government measures to respond, with living conditions worsening, poverty increasing, farming disrupted and concerning levels of food insecurity. Government efforts to contain the virus have been challenged through misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories which have increased inter-communal tensions. And confidence in the government remains uncertain, with another a military coup in August. According to the UN, terrorist groups throughout Mali and the Sahel have taken advantage of Covid-19 to ‘intensify their attacks and to challenge State authority throughout the subregion’, with higher rates of civilian casualties.

The security threats in other areas of the continent, including East Africa and Central Africa, remain complex, as Islamic State affiliates continue to undertake attacks in places such as Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique.

The operation of Australian mining companies in parts of the continent has continued, with some adjustments to put in place strict quarantine measures and responses in the event of outbreaks on the site of mines. The potential risks of an outbreak on a mine site runs the risk of not only setting back mining operations, but also having a devastating impact on the local community that makes up the employees for the mining operation, as well as the reputation of the company that runs the mining operation. In South Africa, for instance, the mining sector experienced a sharp increase in Covid cases, with some estimates suggesting nearly 5,000 employees in the sector had contracted Covid-19. This led to the loss of life of dozens of workers, while also contributing to a decline in the output of the mining sector.

These events offer important lessons for Australian mining companies operating on the continent. Many companies have experience managing health crises that have hit the continent before, such as Ebola. Australian mining companies do not want to be responsible for introducing Covid-19 into the communities where they operate. Several companies have provided support to governments and put in place a range of quarantine processes to mitigate the risk that those travelling into the area will introduce the virus into the local community or the mine sit. But given the role that many mining companies have in providing employment and services to the local communities where they operate, they will need to continue to ensure that they have plans in place to address an outbreak in the community. Companies will also need to remain cognizant of the disproportionate impact that the crisis and government responses to it, are likely to have on exacerbating existing inequalities in the community, particularly for women and youth.

With the security situation in parts of Africa is unlikely to improve anytime soon and no vaccine for Covid-19 on the immediate horizon, Australian mining companies will need to continue to be prepared to operate in an environment of uncertainty for the foreseeable future.

Originally published by: Australia's Paydirt on 01 Nov 2020