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Ebola and Mining: The need for action

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 The African continent is rich in mineral reserves, and a great deal of interest has been generated in Australian companies wishing to invest, explore and mine there.

Interest in the prospect of investing in Africa has grown over the past five years to a reported $686 billion worth of discoveries across the continent with Australian involvement.

The Africa Downunder Conference in Perth focussed on the upturn in sentiment for investment there, however a discussion about the recent Ebola outbreak in western Africa highlighted one of the key concerns in terms of making positive investments in the region: Stability.

Dr David Heymann, director and head of global health security at the British policy think tank Chatham House, addressed the Perth conference on the subject of Ebola with some positive, albeit grisly news.

Heymann said that a robust response was needed to prevent the spread of the disease, and despite the difficulties with a wide area distribution through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, he was “fairly certain that it will be contained and it will stop spreading.”

“It’s too virulent, it kills people too rapidly and it’s very easy then to get rid of,” he said.

The Ebola outbreak in western Africa has caused a number of mining operations to suspend production and evacuate staff, however six companies have been involved in the emerging infectious diseases risk mitigation project (IDRAM) funded by USAID.

These companies include Freeport McMoRan Inc., (Tenke Fungurume Mine), the Hong Kong-listed, but Melbourne-headquartered, MMG Limited (Kinsevere Mine), and Australia’s Mawson West Limited (Dikulushi Mine) and Tiger Resources Limited (Kipoi Mine).

Field work on the IDRAM Initiative started in May 2014 and was coordinated by the International SOS group, which provided the interface between mining companies, provincial health authorities, the University of Lubumbashi and medical teams, to test a specially developed tool kit to help counter tropical disease such as Ebola and their threat to mining-based communities.

The African-Australian Mining Industry Group chairman Bill Turner said infectious disease risks in Africa posed unique legal and logistical challenges to Australian companies and their directors, in providing a safe and healthy workplace.

“A recent briefing note provided by Clayton Utz, tells us that possible contraction by staff of the Ebola virus is a reasonably foreseeable risk for many, although particular circumstances will significantly affect the likelihood of that occurring,” Turner said, in a joint statement with conference convenor Bill Repard.

“Even where the risk may be remote for a particular operation, the consequences are almost always catastrophic.

“The briefing note points to the fact that Australian mining industry companies in Africa must carefully assess whether they require, and have in place, appropriate preventative and risk management measures tailored to address the particular risks to their workforce posed by the work environment and disease(s) concerns.

According to Clayton Utz, there is also risk of substantial penalties to apply to Australian companies and directors who fail to adequately assess the risks and take appropriate precautions.

Where failure to act on disease outbreak involved a risk of death, as with Ebola, maximum penalties were up to $600,000 for individuals and $3 million for companies, with up to five years imprisonment in more extreme cases.

The Ebola virus outbreak was confirmed in March 2014, and to date has killed 1900 people.

The outbreak began in Guinea, and spread to Sierra Leone by June, and soon after the Liberian Government declared a state of national emergency.

Ebola haemorrhagic fever is one of the deadliest human diseases known, with a fatality rate of between 50 and 60 per cent, and is spread by contact through bodily fluids.

The disease causes blood to haemorrhage from the body, and kills victims within days of diagnosis.

Research has shown the virus can be carried by bats and chimpanzees, both of which are hunted for meat.

The potential cost to mining companies from this and other diseases, through damage to workforce numbers, work stoppages and mine closures was highlighted by Dr Heymann, who said the key to combating such outbreaks is through partnerships between mining companies, communities and governments.

“I can assure you this is the time to take this to heart, because there will always be a risk from infectious diseases,” he said.

“While the world is focused on West Africa, another emergence occurred of Ebola in DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), infections jump from animals to humans regularly, and there is always a need to consider emerging infectious diseases in business.

“In many cases mining companies think that they are being asked to do everything and the government does very little, part of that is because mining companies do not spend enough time engaging local, regional, and national governments in being partners, and understanding that it can't be done alone.

“And episodes such as occurring now in West Africa can be prevented from occurring in the future.

“What there is not a clear understanding of, is what some people call black swan events — these are emerging infections which can decimate local populations, decimate the workforce, because they have a direct impact on the workforce, but also have an major indirect impact, because all of the logistics around the mining company collapse.”

Heymann said that business is completely on hold in the region until the outbreak can be contained, and that all workers are at risk from the virus.

“It’s important mining companies understand that it’s not only the nationals that can be at risk but the expatriate workers, they can be out in the forest, and doing things similar to what nationals are doing and become infected with the disease,” he said.

“They won't be able to attract people who can fly in and fly out, they have to create a safe environment.”

Heymann also indicated the longer reaching cost for business and the economy in developing countries such as Sierra Leone, Uganda and Guinea.

“As long as this virus is there, because there has been such a lack of trust by people in their governments, this will continue to shut down all infrastructure until the outbreaks are ended,” he said.

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