Covid-19 Roundup | Unemployment and a vaccine

Unemployment reaches almost 40% as retrenchments escalate. Meanwhile, the first Covid-19 vaccine trials in Africa start in Johannesburg.

Unemployment and retrenchments

The tip of the unemployment iceberg is starting to emerge from the ocean of devastation wreaked by the novel coronavirus. The Quarterly Labour Force Survey, published by Statistics South Africa on 24 June 2020, shows that, by the expanded definition, 39.7% of working-age people in South Africa are now unemployed. In the Eastern Cape, nearly one in every two adults (48.9%) is now without a job, while Gauteng and the Western Cape are the only two provinces where unemployment is below 40%. It also remains doggedly gendered, with 43.4% of women unemployed compared to 36.5% of men. The figures represent the first quarter of this year and are likely to worsen as the full effects of the Covid-19 lockdown become apparent.

As though to underline these statistics, almost 1 000 workers at seven mines owned by Glencore Operations are facing retrenchment. The National Metalworkers Union of South Africa (Numsa) says the government must intervene to save the jobs at Western Chrome Mines, Eastern Chrome Mines, Lion Smelter, Lydenburg Smelter, Wonderkop Smelter, Rustenburg Smelter and Boshoek Smelter. 

Numsa says Glencore Operations claimed it needed to retrench workers because of the falling price of chrome, “unsustainable electricity pricing” and fixed production and labour costs. But just four months ago, the company announced 2019 global preliminary earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation of more than R200 billion, and said it had been able to achieve “healthy cash generation despite significantly lower commodity prices”. Glencore Operations is the world’s largest producer of ferrochrome and also owns numerous copper, zinc, nickel, coal and iron ore mines in Argentina, Australia, Chile, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Chad, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania, Peru, Kazakhstan and the US.

“The impact on workers and their families will be devastating, especially because the majority of our people support extended family members,” said Jerry Morulane, Numsa regional secretary of the Hlanganani region. “To them it is about profit and nothing else. That profit will always be made at the expense of employees. Some of those employees have served the company for many years and played a huge role for the company to find itself where it is today. But when the company decides to terminate, they just don’t care, Covid-19 or not. Even if it was one or two people, it is one too many. No worker wants to find themselves in that situation under the current coronavirus environment.”

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Mining communities fight back

“When coronavirus breaks out at a mine, it spreads quickly to the mine community,” said Chris Rutledge, director of the advice office of Mining Affected Communities United in Action (Macua), a radical movement aimed at raising the voices of communities who live near mines. Mines failed to consult mining communities when they developed their coronavirus containment plans and do not seem serious about preventing the spread of the virus. At the Sishen Mine near Kathu in Maramane, Northern Cape, members of the community and workers shut down access to the mine after 45 workers who tested positive were sent home to the community to self-isolate. 

When several workers tested positive for coronavirus at the PlatiStone mine in Mokopane, Limpopo, chief officer Jeffrey Mulabisana said he would not shut down the mine. “Shutting down the plant is not going to stop you from getting the virus from all these other places if you don’t follow the hygiene standards you are supposed to follow,” he said, adding that there are more people infected in the communities than there are in the workplace. Employees “fearing for their lives … are welcome to stay at home” on the “no work no pay” principle, he said. Macua sees this approach as “cavalier” and “disturbing”, said Rutledge.

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Covid-19 vaccine

On 23 June, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg announced South Africa will enrol the first Covid-19 vaccine trial on the continent. The trial will have 2 000 participants between the ages of 18 and 65. This week at three sites in Gauteng the first participants will be vaccinated. In the coming weeks it will expand to two more sites in the Western Cape.  

The vaccine, which is known as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, was developed by the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford in England. “The plan in South Africa is for this vaccine to be evaluated for safety both in individuals with or without HIV,” said leader of the trial Shabir Madhi, who is a professor of vaccinology at Wits. Researchers are also interested in looking at immune responses across the population and for how the vaccine might protect those without HIV from becoming infected with Covid-19.

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Troubled water

The Department of Water and Sanitation has defended the expensive acquisition costs of water tanks in KwaZulu-Natal, attributing the bulk of the price to installation and maintenance fees.

Recently, the provincial education department admitted to spending “R28 000 per 5 000l water tank and R6 500 per handwashing station”. A water tank costs just under R4 000 on average.

The above prices are inclusive of delivery, stands and installation, the water department said, adding that the tank acquisition and distribution plan was accepted by the national coronavirus command council. “Every penny is overseen by the office of the Auditor-General.”

On 15 June, the department reported that it had made great progress in ensuring water provision in schools, as well as across the country, claiming to have delivered almost 19 000 water storage tanks and coordinated 1 299 water delivery tankers to fill them. It did admit to problems with tanks being filled regularly, but says delays are because of inaccessible roads in rural areas.

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