Mutare — Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) has warned of mounting fears in the artisanal gold sector that Coronavirus pandemic could trigger an outbreak of violence and crime.
ZELA said in remote mining areas and underground pits, among artisanal miners, diggers and rural people "there is little or no knowledge of the causes, transmission, symptoms and effects of COVID-19."
ZELA said it will be producing weekly assesments in selected mining communities to show the state of play in artisanal and small-scale mining, assessing how they are coping and responding to COVID-19.
In the first survey conducted in Gwanda, Shurugwi, Zvishavane and Bubi, focused on women miners, artisanal and small-scale miners and diggers, villagers and mining affected communities.
The civic organisation called for government and mining companies to upscale awareness in the artisanal gold mining sector, saying some miners are providing improvised personal protective equipment to the miners.
ZELA said the weekly Situational Report will be compiled from simple, yet informative updates from a network of more than 200 community monitors in remote contact with its staff that is also on lockdown.
"Around the world, COVID-19 is gravely disrupting whole mining supply chains, economies, the social fabric, stretching service delivery capacities, and in the process raising profound state, private sector and political accountability questions. The pandemic has just started to do the same in Zimbabwe.
"Many rural families in Zimbabwe depend on mining and other natural resources for their livelihoods. Artisanal gold mining in particular, is a primary source of income for communities in mineral rich areas.
"As ZELA we work with community monitors, women groups and mine workers across the country and we want to keep our fingers on the pulse with regards to developments on the ground and the impacts of COVID-19 in communities that anchor our programming.
"With our project officers locked-down and working remotely, we have decided to design, compile and disseminate a Weekly COVID-19 Mining Sector and Communities Situational Report, starting with this First Series," read part of the press statement.
"The Weekly Situational report will cover the impacts of COVID-19 and developments at community level including the following aspects; safety, health, environment, social distancing, availability of medical or preventive facilities, status of social service delivery, Government and private sector actions or interventions among other issues."
ZELA said since the outbreak of the disease miners in Gwanda, Bubi, Shurugwi and Zvishavane were operating without heed to the need of social distancing to curb the spread of the virus.
Mine operators have since turned to alternative sources to provide PPE to their workers with some using mutton cloth, with other providing gloves and dishwasher to clean hands, said ZELA.
ZELA said while most miners in Gwanda scaled down their operations and workforce leaving them only with skeletal staff that will provide security the lack of proper medical services in the mining areas, as well as a lack of COVID-19 isolation centres, leaves the community at great risk.
"Before the announcement of the National Lockdown most artisanal and small-scale miners in Gwanda, Bubi, Shurugwi and Zvishavane were mining and not paying close attention to the threats posed by COVID-19, it was business as usual, noone was adhering to the social distancing advice.
"Some mine owners in Gwanda, Bubi and Shurugwi are still operating after providing workers mutton cloths to cover their faces as they cannot find masks which have run out of stock. In Bubi, a few mine owners are providing workers with gloves, methylated spirit, dish washer for cleaning hands and encouraging them to minimize movements and to avoid alcohol and cigarette sharing.
"Many people in the rural areas cannot afford medical services offered in the communities for treating some of the COVID-19 symptoms. Sadly, in many mining areas no COVID-19 isolation centres exist.
"Some Artisanal and small-scale miners in Gwanda and Bubi reduced manpower and the number of workers at the mine site. Those mine workers who can afford bus fare have gone to their rural homes, while those without are staying at the mine but not working
"With little knowledge on the virus and prevention methods for the COVID-19, some mine owners in Gwanda have been seen conducting a series of lessons targeting their workers on World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended COVID-19 prevention guidelines circulated on social media groups such as WhatsAPP.
"Government and mining companies have so far not done enough to educate communities on COVID-19 although some miners and communities are getting information circulated on social media and via the radio," said ZELA.
Unscrupulous gold buyers have also taken advantage of the global bullion slump and are charging low prices forcing miners to prolong shifts to make up for price slump in volume, said ZELA.
"Some mine owners live in fear that if they stop mining operations and go on self-isolation, they might lose their claims to other miners who may invade or takeover during their absence.
"Gold buyers were reportedly buying gold on the cheap from artisanal miners since the prices had started to go down despite gold being a store of value, they will resale when prices go up after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
"The current low gold prices have affected profitability and income for miners in all areas and those community members earning their livelihoods along the gold supply chain at community level," said ZELA.