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Covid-19 and mining

By now, the COVID-19 pandemic has probably taken over most of our lives. I hope that you, your families and your colleagues are safe.

All parts of the economy in the developed world have been affected, and natural resources have not been spared. The largest impacts have been in oil, were massive demand destruction associated with the almost complete cessation of air travel combined with much reduced vehicle use has led to sharp price reductions.

Metals have also been affected, but unlike for oil, where major producers Russia and Saudi Arabia have been increasing production, supply has typically reduced. Overall impacts on metal prices have been uneven, with gold showing strength due to the economic uncertainty, while base metals have generally weakened due to falling consumer demand for goods. In some cases, price falls have triggered production curtailment, such as Trevali’s Caribou mine in New Brunswick, after a COVID-19 related deterioration in zinc prices. The virus has directly impacted other operations. Some of the largest nickel, copper and gold mines in the Americas have suspended production, including in Canada (Voisey’s Bay), Mexico (Penasquito), Panama (Cobre de Panama) and Peru (Antamina). These shutdowns have been due to concerns of spreading infections into Indigenous communities, government mandates, or due to outbreaks amongst the workforce. Some parts of the world have seen lesser effects, for example the pandemic has now been largely suppressed in Australia, and mining production interruptions have been minimal there. Some capital and improvement projects have halted, and sadly many professionals in the industry have been forced to take unpaid time off, or have lost their jobs altogether.

The pandemic has made us acknowledge how society and the economy are interconnected, and our reconsider assumptions on freedom of movement. Mines relying on international consultants for site support suddenly need to rethink plans as many borders have been closed and flights cancelled. The Rainy River mine, located in Ontario, employs a significant portion of its workforce from towns across the nearby US border. Operations were interrupted in late March due to quarantine requirements when crossing the border. The pandemic forces us to think about system wide impacts that can occur through supply chains and services interruptions. The highly contagious nature of the virus combined with a relatively long incubation period and significant proportion of asymptomatic infections, means that outbreaks can be hard to detect until spread has already occurred. Mines in Canada have been changing practices, instituting additional sanitization measures, requiring more wearing of PPE and incorporating social distancing into the workplace. Where it is difficult to maintain social distancing, for example in the cages that bring workers down shafts in underground mines, mines have implemented rules for wearing masks. It’s a dynamic situation. A high degree of vigilance and testing are required, and careful monitoring of any relaxation in practices are needed to ensure the situation does not spin out of control.

Mining companies have a duty of care to employees and their communities to manage health and most mining companies have worked hard to set high safety and health standards in their operations. During the pandemic, it has been pleasing to see many companies proactively modifying work and travel procedures, as well as implementing screening and workplace health monitoring to avoid infections in operations. It seems most mines have avoided the levels of outbreaks that have occurred in some other sectors, such as the meat packing industry. Vigilance and mitigation measures will likely be needed for a while yet, and now is not the time to let down our guard.

Once this is all over, it will be worth reflecting on what industry did well and opportunities for improvement dealing with future health emergencies. We should also celebrate successes where mining operations were able to support their communities to navigate through the pandemic. In the meantime, I’ll continue safely working from home in downtown Vancouver, preparing for my cascade of upcoming Zoom/Skype/Teams/Webex calls, and finding ways to collaborate with colleagues through this global crisis. Take care and stay safe.

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