Dr Thuthula Balfour Minerals Council

It’s been a testing year for Dr Thuthula Balfour, head of health at Minerals Council South Africa.

Not only is the organisation playing an active role to flatten the COVID-19 curve but she is also leading the fight to combat diseases that existed before the coronavirus pandemic. Gerard Peter reports.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 11, 2020
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As mining companies slowly start adjusting to working in the ‘new normal’, it begs the question if the worst is over as far as the pandemic is concerned. According to Balfour, most mining operations experienced their peak around the third week of July.

Read more about COVID-19’s impact on the mining industry

“We still have cases and deaths being reported but this is the tail end of the pandemic. There is also talk of a second wave that is being experienced in many countries but we hope it does not come to that here in South Africa,” she states.

Balfour states that the only way to stem the spread of COVID-19 boils down to behaviour.

Read more about mining in southern Africa

“Let us behave in the same way as when there was a hard lockdown. We need to wear masks and maintain social distancing. In many cases, this is not happening and we simply cannot afford to have another hard lockdown. So people need to live as if COVID-19 is still around.”

A call to reprioritize pre-existing occupational health threats
Reprioritising TB, HIV and NCDs in the era of COVID-19
Navigating the impact of COVID-19

Thankfully, the mining industry is taking heed of Balfour’s advice. Recently, the CEOs of coal companies resolved to maintain the same preventative measures as they did during Level 5 of lockdown.

Read more about coal

“Generally, that is going to be the approach going forward; we simply cannot relax because the number of cases reported is decreasing,” Balfour adds.

Adhering to stringent health and safety measures is part and parcel of the mining industry. To that end, the Minerals Council is part of tripartite forum that includes the Department of Minerals and Energy, mining companies and labour unions.

Read more about the Minerals Council South Africa

At a local level, companies are actively engaging with communities and health authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s no use putting 100% effort in preventing COVID-19 cases on mines without also ensuring that measures are in place in surrounding communities.

“That’s because people who work on the mines live in these communities. So if there is transmission in these communities, it will spread to the mines,” she states.

Now, while the Minerals Council has been proactive in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the pandemic has posted a threat to global health systems and forced the restructuring of health care resources the world over and has impacted on the mining industry’s continued efforts to fight TB, HIV/AIDS and non-communicable diseases.

“We have a reporting system for these types of diseases. Usually, we have a reporting rate of more than 90% per quarter and now we are sitting on a rate of 60%.

“By the end of the second quarter of the year, we aim to screen about 50% of the workforce for these diseases per quarter. This year, that figure is around 30%.”

Another major consideration is that occupational health programmes now have to be changed because of social distancing measures. Previously, such programmes entailed having a roomed filled with workers who came for their annual medical check-ups.

“For example, where previously we would have 60 people in a room, we now can only accommodate 30 people. We are also unable to perform certain tests such as lung function test as these are perceived to contribute to a high rate of transmission,” Balfour adds.

According to Balfour, the fear of being in places where there is a high risk of COVID-19 transmission is also a concerning factor.

“No one wants to go to any place where there are sick people, because they’re fearful that they might contract the virus. That is why we have had to put extra measures in place to ensure that people receive treatment for diseases such as TB.”

Dealing with the silent killer

It is for this reason that last month the Masoyise Health Programme held a seminar that focused on the reprioritisation of pre-existing occupational health threats, such as TB, HIV and non-communicable diseases (diseases that are not transmitted from person-to-person including cancer, diabetes, auto-immune diseases and mental health conditions) in the era of COVID-19.

The Masoyise Health Programme traces its origins back to 2016 when the mining industry, labour, the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) and other government health institutions, first launched the Masoyise iTB campaign, under the auspices of the Minerals Council, to address the impact of TB on industry employees and communities.

In 2019, Masoyise iTB became the more broadly focused Masoyise Health Programme.

Balfour states that the issue of mental health is gaining increasing awareness.

“Even before COVID-19, mental health was recognised as being very important for employee wellness. For instance, in mining we have observed that in many instances people are not able to manage their finances and that is serious, because it can result in suicide and safety incidents because people are under stress.

“So, we have had an appreciation of the importance of mental health in the industry. Additionally, with COVID-19, there are additional psycho-social and mental problems people suffer from such as dealing with the loss of a loved one.

“That is why the Masoyise programme is so important. As a collective, we can organise reprioritise other medical conditions in the era of COVID-19,” she concludes.