Monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 on artisanal and small-scale gold mining

Posted on: April 6, 2020

Program Officer, Chemicals and Health, UN Environment Programme


Gold flakes in a sifting pan

COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) is having profound impacts throughout the world. What's happening to ASGM miners, their communities, and planetGOLD country project teams?

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented challenges throughout the world, upending the global economy, threatening the health of millions, and killing thousands. To date the hardest hit areas – China, Europe, and North America – are not artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) hot spots. But as the virus spreads, this is sure to change quickly. And government-imposed social distancing measures, necessary as they are to protect public health, are likely to create economic hardship on communities and miners.

Reported Cases of COVID-19. Source: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering

Many ASGM activities take place in areas with health infrastructure that may not be prepared to respond to this type of outbreak, and we are monitoring the potential impacts, both direct and indirect, of COVID-19 on the health and well-being of artisanal mining communities.

Our project staff around the world are all practicing social distancing, primarily working from home, and we expect that travel to many regions where ASGM operates will be restricted for some time.

Even though these restrictions make communication with our ASGM community partners very difficult, we’ve started to hear some concerns and anecdotes from the field. Some of our project teams are concerned that the economic impacts of the pandemic will create even more pressure for miners to get money quickly—and as a result may increase the amount of mercury they’re using in order to process and sell gold as quickly as they can. At the same time, border closures and other restrictions on movement will impact informal trade routes by which some miners receive mercury, potentially reducing its availability.

Other planetGOLD country teams speculate that in areas where miners are in close proximity to illegal money, they may resort to illegal financing in order to make ends meet, if other financing resources are closed off to them. We are also hearing concern that governmental relief funds may not take ASGM miners into consideration since recent increases in gold prices may create the perception that mining will not be negatively impacted by the pandemic.

Notably, despite current high gold prices on international markets, the buying price of gold at many artisanal mining sites is crashing as a result of COVID-19, according to a report from Reuters. This trend has also been described by the Artisanal Gold Council, which has developed an excellent overview of what COVID-19 could mean for ASGM communities, outlining potential impacts on miners’ health and incomes, gender dynamics, child labor, and mercury use. They find that because ASGM communities already tend to be marginalized and underserved by governments, they are particularly vulnerable to the economic shock already underway as a result of COVID-19. Miners are also chronically exposed to dust and mercury vapor, potentially making them more vulnerable to the effects of respiratory infections like COVID-19. Their communities often lack adequate sanitation and health services, and hospitals may be very far away.

Delve, a global platform for artisanal and small-scale mining data, is also focusing on COVID-19 and artisanal mining communities. Their updates from selected countries show that miners are already facing serious impacts. In Rwanda, for example, activities at nearly all mines are suspended and workers are unpaid and sometimes unable to return home. And local gold markets in Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Ghana are collapsing as transportation routes and borders close. Delve is also organizing a COVID-19 Task Force to share information, ideas and resources, and support action initiatives that will directly help small-scale miners and their communities.

In the coming days and weeks, the GEF-supported planetGOLD programme will continue to assess the impacts of COVID-19 on ASGM miners and their communities.

This piece was originally published on planetGOLD, a GEF-supported initiative.

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