How has the mining industry responded to COVID-19?

By Tom Butler

The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly the defining global health crisis of our time, with governments and health services alike racing to slow the spread of the virus. But beyond the impact on global health, COVID-19 has shown its potential to create devastating social, economic and political challenges that will have lasting repercussions.

The mining industry’s response has been swift and aligned, and has been driven by two key priorities. Firstly, protecting the health and safety of employees and local communities; and secondly, laying the groundwork to support the longer-term economic recovery which includes supporting livelihoods, protecting severely disrupted supply chains, and helping to build long-term community resilience to any future crises. What this response has made immediately clear is that companies, governments and communities must work in collaboration to aid recovery efforts. Working independently will only hinder the ability to recover and rebuild.

Collaboration has been the cornerstone of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) members’ response to the pandemic. In practice this has meant regularly convening ICMM’s 27 member companies and 35 national and commodity association members to share guidance and information to accelerate learning. Through these conversations we have seen key themes emerge; health and safety as a fundamental shared value, the importance of communicating mining’s role and the shared commitment all companies have to build forward better.

Health and safety – a fundamental shared value

Some criticism has been levelled at the mining industry for being focused on keeping operations open in some countries, despite the perceived risk to the health and safety of communities and workers. Health and safety is a fundamental shared value for the mining industry, and one which is at the centre of every responsible mining company’s business strategy. This has meant ICMM members are well placed to draw on their existing breath of expertise in managing other health crises – for example ebola, TB and malaria. They also have the knowledge to efficiently and effectively implement the vital protocols and measures needed to continue to operate safely. These measures include temperature screening at site, COVID-19 testing and increased hygiene measures such as social distancing and reduced shift sizes. Companies have placed restrictions on work-related travel and have set up hotlines operating 24/7 that provide medical and wellbeing advice, including signposted access to mental health services, for employees and those in the local community.

ICMM companies operate in more than 50 countries. Each country has responded differently to the pandemic and in many countries the response differs across states and regions. Our members are therefore working closely with health authorities to ensure all sites are adhering to national and local guidance. Continuing to share learnings from different responses and knowledge of specific health protocols will be critical in order to help flatten the curve and ensure workers and communities are kept safe.

Communicating mining’s role

A key insight that has arisen from ICMM’s conversations is the importance for communities, NGOs and civil society to have a greater understanding of the mining sector and the critical role it plays in socio-economic development. Not only do local mining operations provide jobs and security to communities, they also support livelihoods by supplying the vital goods and services needed in some of the most remote regions on earth.

Due to the complex nature of mining operations and the remote locations in which they are often located, the mining industry has a relationship with and special commitment to local communities that is like no other sector. The teams at site are therefore in a unique position to listen to concerns and adapt quickly where needed. This has been shown by companies providing for example food parcels, medical assistance, medical supplies (ventilators, PPE and medicine), educational materials, basic infrastructure (sanitation facilities, drinking water and roads) and information about COVID-19. In some cases where local government is at full capacity, this support has been invaluable.

While the sector may not have got it right every time, COVID-19 has undoubtably led to the refocusing and reframing of relationships with local community groups. This is one positive to emerge from the crisis, and something we must learn from and continue to encourage as we move from the response to the recovery phase.

A shared commitment

This has been a steep learning curve for all of us – governments, business, and individuals – and I think the mining industry has shown adaptability, resilience and compassion through its response to the pandemic.

ICMM was founded on a fundamental set of principles that promote sustainable economic growth, the building of resilient and inclusive communities and developing the innovations needed to urgently address climate change. These shared commitments give me optimism that the mining industry can and will support long-term recovery, helping communities to recover and rebuild.

There will be continued demand for the metals and minerals needed to support a greener and more sustainable future. As our members continue to meet that demand, we will also continue to help protect workers and safeguard livelihoods, and help communities recover and build resilience towards a better future.

Tom Butler is President and CEO, International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM)