Mining Companies Battle COVID-19 After The Ebola Crisis

Between 2014 and 2017, Sierra Leone was hit by the Ebola virus along with Guinea and Liberia. The disease killed almost 4,000 people in Sierra Leone but perhaps the worst of the crisis was the brutalization of the economy, especially in the extractive sector. In March 2020, Sierra Leone recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19, the worldwide pandemic that’s rocking the global economy.

The Ebola virus disease (EVD) and coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemics and pandemics have had a far-reaching, negative impact on mining companies in Sierra Leone. During the Ebola epidemic across West Africa, companies closed, staff were laid off and exports were greatly reduced. It’s early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in Sierra Leone but already the economic impact is being felt. During any disease outbreak, every sector of society is affected particularly mining companies as they adapt to preventative measures, lay off staff, reduce operations or shut down, partially or completely.

Ibrahim Mattia is an employee of Sierra Rutile Ltd, one of the largest mining companies in the country. He said, “I was one of the workers who was laid off during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. The company had partially closed and a great number of us were laid off.”

Sierra Rutile survived the Ebola outbreak but two other iron ore mining companies, African Minerals Ltd and London Mining, were completely shut down and eventually sold off. Their mines remain closed, five years after the Ebola crisis. Workers from the two companies, casual and permanent, were laid off. The sharp decline of the international price of iron ore in late 2014 contributed to the downfall of both companies.

The PW Mining Company has been in Sierra Leone for over ten years exporting 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 – faced with the global pandemic of coronavirus.

Wright explained 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, very near the Guinea border. “During the Ebola period, we completely suspended operations,” he explained. “We didn’t want to take any chances.” All of the PW Mining employees were laid off. Equipment stood stagnant and all exports stopped.

The two viruses, Ebola and COVID-19 share a rapid transmission and their deadly nature. Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids or touch. But, COVID-19 can be transmitted through microscopic droplets, which makes transmission unknown and rapid. COVID-19 can be transmitted without touch and by merely being in close contact with someone who is sick. Because the transmission method is different, there is a heightened tension under the COVID-19 state of emergency.

As usual, when these viruses break out, governments adopt measures to try to halt their spread. The Sierra Leone Government instituted preventative measures including: declaring a state of emergency, curfews, closure of land borders, restricting flights at the Lungi Airport, limiting inter-district travel to essential goods such as food, proclaiming physical distancing, facemask wearing and the occasional 3-day, nation-wide lockdown.

Harold Thomas is the Risk Communications Officer at the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), established in March 2020 to coordinate the Government’s campaign against COVID-19. He said no restrictions exist to keep mining companies from carrying out their normal operations although mining products are not considered essential goods. “Mining companies are free to operate because they have their own regulations to control the spread of COVID-19,” Thomas said. He quickly added, “But, mining companies must adhere to the basic health measures pronounced by the Government.”

According to Thomas, social or physical distancing (staying 6-feet apart from any person), hand washing, covering of mouth when coughing or sneezing, wearing facemasks, seeking medical help immediately when signs and symptoms are felt, are some of the basic measures that must be complied with.

Apart from these measures, the EOC spokesperson said, “The restrictions on movement of people and non-essential goods from one district to another is in progress.” He noted, “This inter-district restriction on movement as well as the 9pm-6am curfew, we know, is affecting mining companies.” Essentially, workers from mining companies are not allowed to move from one district to another. Mining equipment or parts cannot be shipped between districts. And, the products from these mines cannot be exported… because of the border closures and flight restrictions.

But, 2-months into Sierra Leone’s battle with COVID-19, mining companies have not completely shut down, as they did during the Ebola crisis.

Currently, the PW Mining Company, according to Wright, complies with the recommended measures to halt the spread of the virus among its continuing workers. “We have bought veronica buckets for hand washing, gloves and facemasks to be used by the workers as and when necessary,” he said. However, Wright expressed frustration with the sharp increase in the price of the COVID-19 personal 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. “Our expenses have risen while we’re not making money from any exports or sales.”

Wright also noted the European miners had left the country and 213 of their staff had been temporally laid off. “For now, PW Mining retains a few of its workers especially the administration and security staff,” he said.

Currently, Sierra Rutile Company is in full swing as mining operations are carried out on a daily basis. Aminata Kamara is the Director of Communication for Sierra Rutile Company Limited (SRL). “SRL did not stop mining completely during the Ebola outbreak,” Kamara said. But, exports slowed and SRL did suffer financially during that time.

She confirmed that SRL mining operations are currently in progress and that the iron ore miner has been playing important role since the outbreak of COVID-19. “SRL has distributed 252 sets of buckets, liquid soap and hand sanitisers to community health centres, police stations, checkpoints and other public places in its five mining chiefdoms of Imperri, Jong, Lower and Upper Banta and Bangruwa,” she said.

Prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus in Sierra Leone, the Communication Director said, SRL employees went through an intensive sensitisation/education drive with regular communication about COVID-19, especially its causes and measures to prevent it. “The company is also implementing hygiene protocols, physical/social distancing and distribution of soap and hand washing buckets. The Communication Director said the same measures were applied during the Ebola outbreak to protect the workers from the virus.

According to the Mines and Mineral Resources Minister, the mining sector is in big trouble. “Exports have dropped by up to 85% and revenues are almost non-existent. Mining is big in our economy and this COVID-19 is destroying our extractive sector and mining income.”

Even though it is “early days” of the coronavirus, the mining sector is suffering. The COVID-19 pandemic is having an enormous, negative affect on the extractive sector. The coronavirus is expected to last up to a year, in Sierra Leone, and experts, the Government and mining executives are keeping a watchful eye on their bottom line, their staff and the Government’s reactions.

This story was a collaboration with the Media and Information Bureau in Sierra Leone and New Narratives as part of the Excellence in Extractives Reporting Project. German Development Cooperation provided funding. The funder had no say in the story’s content.