COVID-19: Communication and collaboration to tackle a common enemy

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the mining industry came together quickly with communities and other stakeholders to help tackle this common global enemy, writes ICMM CEO Tom Butler. 

This was a reflection from one panelist last week during ICMM’s COVID-19 Leadership Conversation, a virtual discussion that I hosted between ICMM member CEOs Mark Cutifani of Anglo American, Juan Luis Kruger of Minsur and Tania Constable from the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) on responses to the pandemic and their thoughts on what the future holds.

The key themes that emerged from the discussion included the urgent need to communicate mining’s wider societal role to audiences, to encourage closer collaboration with local and national governments, and to generate a wider understanding of the existing frameworks and programmes that have quickly been adapted to help protect the health and safety of workers and local communities. 

Communicating mining’s role

Some criticism has been leveled at the mining industry during this crisis due to the decision in some countries to keep operations open, despite the perceived risks to the health and safety of local communities. In response to this, it was agreed by our panel that there was, and still is, an urgent need for a greater understanding and explanation of the critical role mining plays in many local communities. In mining dependent regions, mining companies catalyse social and economic development by providing jobs and security for those in the local community. Beyond this, the industry helps to support livelihoods by providing vital goods and services including healthcare, infrastructure including energy and roads, and educational facilities in some of the world’s most remote and isolated areas. These essential services would cease to exist should operations shut down. Panelists commented that even government officials were often unaware of this, which necessitated some urgent conversations as everyone worked out their way forward in the pandemic. 

There was also consensus from the panel that because of the industry’s special commitment to communities and often long-standing relationships with community members, it is in a unique position to listen to concerns and adapt quickly where needed. For example, in Australia, the government has been very clear on the importance of protecting indigenous communities and Tania Constable (MCA) explained how members developed an approach that was community led and executed in partnership with local groups. More widely, companies have been listening and reacting to the specific needs of the most vulnerable in society by providing food parcels, medical assistance, educational facilities, personal protective equipment, and advice about the virus to keep communities safe. Regular and strong communication from both sides remains has proved to be invaluable and this is something companies will look to continue in future for the mutual benefit of all. 

Working with local and national governments

One of the central points of discussion was how this crisis has shown the importance of business and industry working closely with national and local governments to drive social development.  To achieve tangible outcomes for private/public social development programmes and responses, our panelists noted the vital importance of building relationships at all levels of government. As an example, in Peru, Juan Luis explained how Minsur was able to complete a previously delayed healthcare center for one local community in a matter of weeks owing to this increased purposeful dialogue with government. This shift in narrative and dynamic has been driven largely by the strong goodwill that was generated between the private and public sector during the crisis. The industry can learn from these experiences and continue to develop governmental relationships to drive real societal change and create a foundation from which to create a stronger response to any future crisis. 

Health and safety as a core priority 

Keeping workers and communities safe is a fundamental shared value for the whole industry. Health and safety is at the core of every responsible mining company’s business strategy, and during the discussion it was agreed that due to the industry’s experience and commitment in this space the necessary protocols and systems were more easily rolled out to keep workers and communities safe in the face of COVID-19.  

Mark spoke to this when outlining Anglo American’s experience of developing better health care infrastructure in the wake of the AIDs epidemic, which Anglo has played a key role in confronting in South Africa. He explained how previous work with local communities provided the company with a deeper understanding of the support needed at a practical level. These experiences and existing disease management plans have allowed companies to quickly implement testing, social distancing and increased hygiene measures on site and in the community. 

COVID-19 has undoubtedly led to a refocusing, reshaping and reframing of relationships across all stakeholder groups. It has also led to the heightening of sensitivities around community and societal impact, highlighting the importance of collaboration as a catalyst for change.  This focus on communication and collaboration has been a real positive outcome from this crisis and I believe long-lasting lessons have been learnt which will undoubtably prove beneficial to all. Some critics have said the industry is using the crisis as a platform to push its own agenda. As is the case with national governments, we may have not got it right every time, but I believe the industry has to a large degree acted with positive intent in the face of a large number of unknowns. 

We have demonstrated adaptability, resilience and compassion by working together but we must be ready and prepared to do more. I believe that our members can and will support economic recovery as a key driver of post pandemic reactivation, and we will do this by continuing to build on current and previous collaborative progress. 

If you were not able to join last week’s session a recording is available here.

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Tom Butler is Chief Executive Officer at the International Council on Mining and Metals.