Pandemics are not ‘black swan’ events, the SA mining sector must always be ready

Exxaro CEO, Mxolisi Mgojo;. Pic: Martin Rhodes

THE COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge beyond anything that has struck us in living memory. But is COVID-19 truly a black swan event based on its low probability and high impact? According to Black Swan author, Nassim Taleb, it is not.

Core to this is whether or not the COVID-19 pandemic is an outlier. As history bears out, pandemics break out from time to time with massive impacts, and this is well known. There have been warnings at the highest levels about the possibility of outbreak of pandemics.

This point is important, because the way in which the mining industry was able to respond – swiftly and effectively – is because, while the impact of COVID-19 has been extreme, it is something the industry was better positioned than others to face.

Many mining companies have occupational health departments run by medical professionals of the highest quality – dedicated, determined and creative thinkers. In fact, they are more than occupational health specialists. They are public health specialists.

Back in 2002, when our government and its health department were led by HIV/AIDS denialists, it was the mining industry that showed South Africa how to apply anti-retroviral treatment on a mass scale.

More recently, in 2016 the mining industry’s public health specialists, together with their counterparts in the unions and in government health institutions, launched the Masoyise i TB campaign aimed at the industry’s employees and communities. For years the industry was known as having a TB incidence rate far higher than the country as a whole. Thanks to Masoyise, that is no longer the case.

The point is that, when the COVID pandemic arrived, our industry and its stakeholders had developed remarkable expertise in dealing with the spread of infectious diseases. We have put that expertise to good use over the past eight months.

To enhance that expertise, fundamental research was critical to dealing with the impact of COVID-19. The Minerals Council re-allocated research funding to focus on three COVID-19 related areas.

First was focus was to understand what makes people vulnerable and what we can do to prevent people from dying. The Minerals Council has collaborated with the Aurum Institute to conduct an analysis of the cases and those who succumbed to the disease.

The Minerals Council has also commissioned UNISA to conduct a study to determine the effectiveness of all the control measures currently in place across the mining industry and whether these are achieving the intended objectives and what improvements are required.

Work was also undertaken with mining companies and behaviour change experts focused on sharing and understanding leading practices and lessons to change behaviour among employees and in communities. We have developed practical field guides to share the findings and improve our efforts both at work and beyond the mine gate, and have made these available well beyond the industry.

The third component of this research was the development and enhancement of a geographic information mapping system. The Minerals Council developed and implemented a GIS system to inform decisions and mitigate the risks associated with transmission. The system outlines the prevalence of transmissions in communities and provides an overview of the coping mechanisms in place in different areas, such as hospitals and clinics.

We know that the apparent easing of the COVID situation is not cause for complacency. On the contrary, unless we continue to maintain the same level of caution at our operations, we will be increasing the risk of a second wave.

COVID-19 has been a massive event for our industry and our community –  a white swan event rather than a black swan. And, what that means is that we can expect something like it again. Our industry and our nation must ensure that we are ready for it. And we must be sure that we do not accelerate it.

These are edited excerpts from the keynote address by Mxolisi Mgojo, president of the Minerals Council South Africa, at Joburg Indaba 2020