March 23, 2020 / 2:36 PM / in 2 months

DR Congo locks down mining area, workers sent home over coronavirus

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo imposed a two-day lockdown in part of its copper and cobalt heartland on Monday, as two of the country’s largest mines took steps to reduce staff levels in response to an accelerating coronavirus outbreak.

A police officer stands at the deserted crossing point between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus REUTERS/Olivia Acland

The governor of Haut-Katanga province, Jacques Kyabula, issued the lockdown order late on Sunday. He said the boundaries of the southeastern province, which is home to concessions owned by Ivanhoe, MMG Ltd and Chemaf, would also be closed after two people tested positive for the virus in the provincial capital, Lubumbashi.

However, Congo’s health minister said late on Monday that subsequent testing revealed the two, who had flown from the national capital Kinshasa on Sunday, were not infected, meaning there have not been any cases in the southeast.

Even so, companies had already moved on Monday to begin downsizing their operations.

In neighboring Lualaba province, Glencore’s Kamoto Copper Company (KCC) mine, a copper and cobalt project, repatriated 26 foreign workers on Monday in response to the outbreak, a union official told Reuters.

China Molybdenum’s nearby Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM) project told employees that the mine would be placed in isolation beginning at noon on Tuesday, according to a note seen by Reuters.

“Only essential services will be organized to maintain the production tool. For that, essential staff will stay on the site and will not be in contact with the outside world,” it said.

Spokespeople for Glencore and Ivanhoe declined to comment. China Molybdenum and MMG Ltd did not respond to requests for comment.

Sandeep Mishra, a general manager at Chemaf, the Congo subsidiary of Dubai-based Shalina Resources, confirmed its mines in Haut-Katanga had been suspended for two days and said production would suffer as a result.

“The safety of all our employees is our first priority, hence we are supporting two days lockdown in our operations,” Mishra said.

SHUTDOWNS

Together, Haut-Katanga and Lualaba account for nearly all of Congo’s output of cobalt, a component in electric car batteries. Congo produces about 60% of the world’s cobalt.

Indigo Ellis, Head of Africa Research at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said she expected the lockdown and possible subsequent disruptions to weigh heavily on copper output.

Congo has now recorded 45 cases of the coronavirus, the country’s biomedical institute said on Monday, a 50% jump from a day earlier.

“Operators will likely place mines under care and maintenance for a minimum period of 14 days, as we’ve seen in comparable mines in Peru and Chile,” Ellis said.

“The difference in DRC is that these companies will have to make the first move. Local and national governments will likely not mandate shutdowns to try and keep up resource rents.”

In Lualaba, Muyej ordered all public markets to close on Monday except those selling food and medicine. He said the order does not apply to mines.

In Haut-Katanga, Kyabula said that only the military, police, medical staff and authorized civil servants would be allowed to travel around the province and halted transport from trucks to bicycles and barges.

“No activity will be tolerated in Haut-Katanga during this 48-hour period,” he said in a video posted on Twitter.

More than 1,700 cases of coronavirus have now been reported across Africa, according to a Reuters tally.

There are concerns that the continent will not be able to handle a surge in cases without the depth of medical facilities available in more developed economies.

Additional reporting by Helen Reid; additional reporting and writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Stephen Coates

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