In some ways it’s difficult to believe that over a year has passed since COVID-19 turned our world upside down. Zambia has escaped the large-scale tragedy of many countries, with the virus spreading at a relatively slow pace by global standards. But one thing is certain: the disease’s trajectory would have been very different if First Quantum Minerals (FQM) had not mobilised its resources to launch a comprehensive set of COVID-19 interventions without delay, say the healthcare professionals on the proverbial frontlines.
Fourteen months on, Mining For Zambia reflects on the impact of FQM’s efforts.
Time is of the essence
As soon as COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 11 March 2020, the country’s largest miner began initiating measures to deal with the imminent crisis. “A team of health workers was trained, while FQM assisted with [medical] infrastructure,” said Dr. Felix Zikamabahari, who is part of the COVID-19 team at Mary Begg clinic in Kalumbila town.
“By March 2020, FQM management had allocated locations to use as isolation centres.” A section of the Solwezi School of Nursing was renovated for this purpose, at a cost of US$ 85,300. “By the time we had our first confirmed case in May 2020, we were ready,” said Dr. Zikamabahari. If it weren’t for careful and consistent collaboration between Kalumbila Minerals and the clinic, a very different picture may have emerged.
A partnership with FQM was also crucial in keeping infections under control in the Solwezi area, medical superintendent at Solwezi General Hospital, Dr. Namwaka Mukuyandela, told Mining For Zambia. “In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one knew what to expect, or how the disease would impact the healthcare system in Zambia — and in particular, Solwezi.” It was during these early days of uncertainty that FQM set out to do what the company knew was certain to have far-reaching effects: community sensitisation and awareness campaigns.
It all starts with awareness
In March 2020, the company began a COVID-19 education drive in the areas around Solwezi and Kalumbila, with a series of roadshows reaching people far beyond its mining sites. “The FQM Wellness Bus probably covered its highest mileage during its COVID-19 awareness campaigns than ever before,” said Dr. Mukuyandela. Informational flyers about COVID-19 were printed in all three local languages — plus English — for distribution across the province.
“Working with the team under Gertrude Musunka [former FQM Zambia’s Health Programs and Projects Advisor] was amazing,” said Dr Mukuyandela. “Every day the team came back with more energy and ways to engage the crowds in all the townships in Solwezi district. This, for me, had the biggest impact on preventing the spread of infection.”
Dr Zikamabahari agrees: education was essential in keeping case numbers under control. This, however, is a work in progress, he points out. There is still a need to continue spreading knowledge about the transmission of the virus, with reported cases of stigma around people who have recovered from COVID-19, which demonstrates that communities believe them to still be infectious weeks or months later.
Turning COVID-19 testing times on their head
COVID-19 testing has been central to keeping infection rates relatively low in Solwezi, Kalumbila and surrounds. Without sufficient testing capacity and quick turnaround times, people may unknowingly spread the virus, and targeted and appropriate treatment cannot begin promptly.
Dr Mukuyandela explains the miner’s role in this: “FQM was instrumental in providing equipment for the Provincial Covid PCR lab, housed within Solwezi General Hospital. The key pieces of equipment that were procured include a bio safety cabinet used for sample preparation and a Gene Xpert machine which can produce a test result in 45 minutes.”
Compared to a waiting time of 14 days — back when samples had to be sent to Ndola — this was a game-changer. “Before the lab was functional, not only did FQM provide transportation by road to Ndola for samples, but also arranged for samples to be couriered by air, as far as Lusaka at times.”
“FQM was instrumental in providing equipment for the Provincial Covid PCR lab, including a Gene Xpert machine which can produce a test result in 45 minutes.”
Dr Zikamabahari points out that after FQM was granted permission to conduct tests, the reduced turnaround time allowed treatment for affected employees to begin without delay, ensuring that all negative-testing employees could return to work as soon as possible.
“The screening of employees on-site has also helped break down the stigma initially associated with COVID-19,” said Dr Mukuyandela. “Most employees have become more disposed to preventive measures, even outside the plant.”
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
Over a year since FQM first introduced preventive measures at its Sentinel and Kansanshi operations, these small but effective shifts in behaviour have become second nature to many employees. Daily temperature monitoring is ‘the new normal’, and on-site screening ensures that COVID-19 infections are identified, particularly in employees with comorbidities.
Where a case of COVID-19 does present itself, the response is in line with guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Zambia’s Ministry of Health, including patient isolation in order to prevent the spread of infection.
“FQM came on board to assist Government in setting up an isolation facility which could initially cater for around 90 patients. After the renovation of the structure that is being used as an isolation facility, it was equipped with cardiac beds for critical patients, ordinary patient beds, linen, assorted Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and infra-red thermometers — just to mention some of the items provided,” said Dr Mukuyandela. “The company’s donation of disinfecting materials for schools, markets and health institutions was also an added plus.”
By late April 2020, FQM’s contribution to COVID-19 prevention and treatment measures had totalled US$400,000. The company’s financial commitment is ongoing, and continues to extend beyond its operations in Kalumbila and Solwezi.
Protecting lives protects livelihoods
One thing that the world has learned in the last year is that a pandemic of this nature leaves no industry untouched. The swift action taken by FQM — and, indeed, other miners in North-Western and the Copperbelt Provinces — to support Government’s own efforts has improved the country’s epidemic preparedness by leaps and bounds.
“We had to supplement government efforts,” said Junior Keyser, Assistant General Manager of Kalumbila Minerals. “Management had to take the lead, and we quickly established a steering committee consisting of members from different departments [which] we used to develop a strategy.”
Sentinel and Kansanshi mines simply had to continue producing copper in order to stay open for business, he pointed out. If Zambia’s largest mine had been forced to stop or even slow production because of the pandemic, an enormous number of Zambians who depend on the mining sector would have lost their livelihoods.
If Zambia’s largest mine had been forced to stop or even slow production because of the pandemic, an enormous number of Zambians who depend on the mining sector would have lost their livelihoods.
FQM’s strategic partnership with Zambia’s Ministry of Health, and its persistence in keeping the lines of communication with Government open has paid off in the form of achieving an annual record for copper production in 2020, against all the odds. The pandemic is far from over, but this integrated approach has certainly mitigated the damage that may otherwise have been wrought on Zambians.
“Even if the second wave was worse than the first, we were better prepared for it,” said Dr Zikamabahari. Mr Keyser also pointed to the lessons gained from the first and second waves. Should a third wave arrive in North-Western Province, both Dr Zikamabahari and Mr Keyser agree that experience will help them feel “ready” — or, as “ready” as one can feel, in the time of COVID-19.
Read all our coverage on Zambia’s mines’ COVID-19 response here.
See also: In it for the long haul