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Congo enacts plan to blunt virus impact as cobalt exports slump

  • Government will train artisanal miners in social distancing
  • Weak copper demand could delay opening of Ivanhoe’s Kamoa mine

The Democratic Republic of Congo will begin a massive public-health information campaign for hundreds of thousands of hand-miners as part of a plan to offset the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its key cobalt and copper industry.

The proposals are contained in a report drafted by the Mines Ministry that warns of a “catastrophic” situation if the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak lead to major mine closures.

Congo, the world’s biggest producer of cobalt and Africa’s largest copper miner, has no known coronavirus cases in its copperbelt region in the southeast of the country. Most mines, including ones run by Glencore Plc and China Molybdenum Co., continue to operate amid staffing restrictions.

“If certain measures are taken and applied with proper monitoring, we can considerably minimize the negative impact of this pandemic on the mining sector and, in turn, the negative impact on the national economy,” the ministry said in the seven-page report verified by Mines Minister Willy Kitobo Samsoni.

While the bulk of Congo’s metal comes from large, mechanized mines, an estimated 200,000 people make a living digging copper and cobalt by hand. To offset the risk of the disease spreading among these so-called artisanal miners, the government is sending teams to train them on social distancing and disease prevention, the ministry said.

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Price Slump

The proposals come as data shows Congolese exports of cobalt, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries, slumped 15% in the first quarter, while copper shipments grew 13%.

Weakened demand for copper and cobalt could delay the opening of new projects, including Ivanhoe Mines Ltd.’s Kamoa-Kakula copper mine, according to the report. Kamoa-Kakula is scheduled to come online in the third quarter of 2021 and could eventually become the second-biggest copper mine in the world, according to Ivanhoe’s website.

Ivanhoe said April 2 that it was taking “extraordinary measures to safeguard its people and mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on its mine development operations.” The company didn’t immediately provide additional comment when contacted by email Thursday.

The government is reluctant to shut down artisanal sites for fear that it “would cause problems of insecurity in cities because of the return of large masses of miners without means of subsistence,” the ministry said. “We will risk going from a health crisis to an economic crisis that will end up, in turn, as a social crisis.”

When prices are high, artisanal miners can account for as much as 30% of the country’s cobalt production, according to the ministry.

Congo has identified 287 cases of the novel coronavirus and 23 deaths through Thursday, almost all of which were in Kinshasa, the capital, more than 800 miles away from the country’s biggest mines.

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