Sources have confirmed that a total of 18 mine workers have died from Covid-19, with nearly 3000 workers having tested positive for the virus.
More than half of the deaths were in the platinum sector, which has seen the highest number of infections as companies ramp up production following the easing of lockdown regulations. Gold mines, which have some of the world’s deepest shafts, have reported six deaths, while no deaths have occurred in the coal sector.
According to the Minerals Council, the North West platinum mining belt has 1643 confirmed cases of Covid-19, followed by the gold sector, which is trailing at 914, and coal mines with 263 cases.
The number of deaths has been slowly rising, despite hygiene and safety guidelines aimed at curbing the spread of infections, including the daily screening of employees before they enter work spaces.
Since the beginning of phased-in production from May, companies have beefed up safety protocols to adhere to industry-wide codes of practice adopted to prevent the spread of the virus, which has already claimed over 3000 lives around the country.
According to David Rees, Emeritus Professor of Occupational Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of the Witwatersrand, infections among mine workers reflect the conditions in communities where the they reside. More infections should be expected in the coming months, he added.
“What is happening in the mines is to be expected. It is not extraordinary, given that infections in the country are currently on the rise,” said Rees.
Companies are also yet to recall several workers from neighbouring countries who left South Africa ahead of the hard lockdown. Borders remain closed for normal travel.
Thousands of employees from countries such as Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique are yet to return, while companies have been encouraged to keep those employees whose existing conditions put them at higher risk at home.
Gold Fields said a total of 503 of its employees from neighbouring countries had not yet returned.
While infections appear to be on the rise, last week the industry body said its members had adopted interventions aimed at combating the stigma around the virus through education and awareness in communities and in the workplace. They warn that stigma surrounding around the virus may lead to irresponsible behaviour such as not wearing masks, out of fear of being perceived as ill.
The Minerals Council has previously dismissed claims the the mining sector was a hot spot for infections, attributing the rising number of infections to rigorous testing mechanisms. So far 290 535 workers have been screened and 21 386 tests conducted.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) believes that the explosion of infections in the platinum belt was a result of lack of adherence to safety guidelines during the earlier stages of the lockdown.
“Some mines in the early stages of the lockdown applied to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy to be allowed to operate during the lockdown. During that time there was no adherence to safety regulations,” said spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu.
“We are not surprised that this is now happening…it is a result of mines chasing profits ahead of lives,” he said. The NUM now wants the government to shut down mines that fail to comply with healthy and safety regulations, and arrest mine managers found to be flouting the law.
A total of 1950 have recovered from the virus.