Canadian Mining Journal

Feature

COVID-19 plunges miners into uncharted territory

The challenge that COVID-19 poses for mining companies



On Sunday, Mar. 1, the rst day of this year’s Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention in Toronto, a smaller than usual audience sat listening to Paul Robinson, a director at CRU Group, describe how every day life had changed for CRU employees in Beijing because of COVID-19.

At that point, the group’s 35 employees in the city – none of whom had been to Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak in China – had not left their homes for three and a half weeks, working from home, ordering food in, and “self-isolating.”

Little did the audience realize that within weeks, many of us would be facing the same extreme measures to ght the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Although the virus was starting to spread globally at that point, there were only a handful of conrmed cases in Canada – mostly linked to travel either to China or Iran.

Very quickly, however, it became apparent that Canada, the United States and Europe would not be spared.

Now, three weeks later, there have been restrictions on international and domestic travel, the closure of borders, the shutdown of all non-essential businesses, and orders to practice “social distancing.”

As a result of the incredible disruption to the global economy, commodities prices have plunged. Oil is at US$22.50 a barrel; copper is under US$2.10 per lb.; and, after hitting US$1,687 per oz. in early March, then crashing to below US$1,500 per oz., safe-haven gold was back up to US$1,561 at presstime.

Mine after mine has announced a scale down of production or a transition from active mining to care and maintenance, sometimes related to travel restrictions, sometimes related to the protection of remote Indigenous communities.

The only thing spreading faster than the virus, seemingly, is fear. On Mar. 18, unionized mine employees at BHP Billiton’s Escondida copper mine in Chile expressed concern about health and safety measures at the mine surrounding the virus, and said they would ask authorities to shut down the mine if stricter measures were not implemented. A day later, Rankin Inlet residents blockaded a road to Agnico Eagle Mines’ Meliadine mine in Nunavut, fearing that fly-in workers could introduce the virus locally.

The movement of staff to and from remote sites poses a unique challenge for mining operations.

Some mines have announced short-term measures (two to four weeks) of operating on care and maintenance with a skeleton staff, but they are grappling with how or if they can keep their operations staffed and healthy during this pandemic.

While there is no way to know how long this virtual shutdown of the global economy will last, it is certain that when we come out on the other side of this, there will be a violent snapback of demand for just about everything.

Miners who can hold on during these strange times will be essential in helping us all rebuild a new “normal.


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