By Allieu Sahid Tunkara
Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) and Corona Virus (COVID-19) pandemics have far reaching impact on mining companies in Sierra Leone.
During outbreaks, almost every sector of society is affected particularly mining companies as they, most times, shut down operations partially or completely to halt the spread of the virus.
The EVD broke out in Sierra Leone on 24th May 2014 and claimed the lives of approximately two thousand Sierra Leoneans.
Similarly, the first case of COVID-19 was recorded on 31st March, 2020. According to updates by the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC)/ Ministry of Health and Sanitation, over 200 cases of COVID-19 cases have been recorded with 11 deaths.
As usual, when these viruses broke out, governments adopt measures to halt the spread of the virus. The key government measures are closure of countries borders although sometimes conditioned by a geo-political consideration, make laws to reduce population in congested areas, and most importantly the pronouncement of a state of public emergency.
The two viruses share a lot in common in terms of their rapid mode of transmission and their deadly nature except that COVID-19 has been described as a novel virus.
The EVD outbreak forced two key Iron Ore miners, African Minerals Ltd and London Mining Company to shut down completely.
Workers of the two companies, casual or permanent, were laid off owing to the highly contagious and deadly nature of the virus although the sharp fall of Iron Ore price in the world market could not be ruled out as another contributing factor.
Conversely, the COVID-19 pandemic has not made mining companies to shut down immediately as they did during the Ebola period.
Harold Thomas is the Risks Communication Officer at the Emergency Operations Centre, an institution set up to coordinate the campaign against COVID-19.
He said no restriction exists to keep mining companies from carrying out their normal mining operations although mining products are not essential goods.
“Mining companies are free to operate because they have their own regulations to control the spread of COVID-19,” Mr Thomas said.
He however said the mining companies must adhere to the basic health measures pronounced by government.
According to Thomas, social distancing, that is staying six feet from an infected person, hand washing, covering of mouth when sneezing, wearing of face masks, seeking medical help immediately when signs and symptoms are felt are some the basic measures that must be complied with.
Apart from the measures above, the EOC spokesman says, the restriction on the movement of persons from one district to another is in progress.
“The inter-district restriction on movement as well as the 6am-9am curfew that in is in progress affect mining companies,” he said.
By virtue of these measures, workers in mining companies are not allowed to move from one district to another.
PW Mining Company has been in Sierra Leone for over ten years exploiting different types of minerals with a particular focus on contract mining for diamonds and gold.
The Administration and Office Manager, Victor Wright compared what they did during the Ebola period and what they are doing now.
Mr Wright explained that during the Ebola period, they shut down operations completely owing to the rapid spread of the virus although they had a contract to mine diamonds in the eastern town of Kono.
“During the Ebola period, we completely suspend operations although at that time we had a contract to mine diamonds in Kono,” he explained.
Currently, in the COVID-19 period, Mr Wright says, PW Mining Company complies with the recommended measures to halt the spread of the virus among its workers.
“We have bought veronica buckets, gloves and face masks to be used by the workers as and when necessary,” he said.
Mr Wright however seems frustrated with the sharp increase in the price of the protective equipment.
“In March this year, a box of facemasks cost Le100, 000 while the price for the same quantity rose to Le 250, 000 in April,” he said.
However, Mr Wright said the European miners had left the country few months back and that 213 of their staff had been temporally laid off.
“For now, PW Mining Company retains few of its workers especially the administration and security staff,” he said.
Sierra Rutile is also another strategic miner in Sierra Leone’s mining sector.
The company mines rutile in the southern part of Sierra Leone and export same to other countries.
The company partially closed down operations during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone as many of its workers were laid off.
Ibrahim Mattia said he was one of the workers who was redundant during the Ebola crisis.
Currently, Sierra Rutile Company is in full swing as mining operations are carried out on a daily basis. Speaking from the Mining Site in Moriba/Rutile Town in the Moyamba district, The Media Officer Pondexter Sama said mining operations are currently in progress.
He says COVID-19 measures are in place and complied with by the workers on the mining site.
“We make sure that the workers put on face masks, wash their hands and comply with other measures as pronounced by the government,” Sama explained.
He also said during the Ebola outbreak, Sierra Rutile also conducted mining operations.
Sama’s claim runs contrary to one of the formerly redundant worker of Sierra Rutile Mining Company, Ibrahim Mattia.
Currently, countries in the world have closed down their land, air and sea borders implying that mineral exports could not be taken out of the country, but mining companies continue their operations.
By Allieu Sahid Tunkara