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Letšeng mine faced with COVID-19 infection scare

  • Mine downplays high risks amid deaths

Matiisetso Mosala

Lesotho’s highest quality diamond producer, Letšeng Diamond Mine is allegedly faced with a challenge of containing the spread of COVID-19 amongst workers contracted by various companies on its mining site in Mokhotlong.

The spread of the virus at the mine has reportedly led to the death of a blood brother to Health Minister, Motlatsi Maqelepo.

Not only has Maqelepo lost his brother’s life to COVID-19 related complications but also a Health and Safety Officer of the mine has also reportedly succumbed to the pandemic.

A member of the Maqelepo family who spoke anonymously said upon his arrival home on July 23, their brother signaled that he did not want to meet any of the family members as he contracted COVID-19.

The deceased’s condition reportedly deteriorated the following day and was ferried to the national COVID-19 isolation centre in Teyateyaneng. Four days later, Maqelepo’s brother passed on.

MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism learned that there are currently a number of employees of the Letšeng mine at the isolation facility who were also sent to the facility when their conditions worsened.

The mine’s Chief Executive Officer Kelebone Leisanyane confirmed discovery of COVID-19 positive mine workers but refused to divulge nuanced details.

Leisanyane said the mine had taken all necessary protocols laid out by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Ministry of Health to minimize the spread of the COVID-19 infection at the mine.

Co-owned by British Gem Diamonds and Lesotho government commanding 70 and 30 percent shares respectively, Letšeng is the highest dollar per carat kimberlite diamond mine in the world.

But sources who spoke to MNN Centre, claimed Minopex, a mining operations and maintenance solutions contracted at the mine could be among companies to blame for the rise in COVID-19 case in Lesotho for its alleged negligence.

Sources said Minopex contracted plant repairs company, Industrial and Mining Solutions (Pty) Ltd, was engaged to work at the mine but its personnel, mostly foreigners, were never cleared off COVID-19 before proceeding.

Initially, sources said, when the COVID-19 infections were discovered at Letšeng, suspects were quarantined within the mine premises and confirmed cases were sent home for self-isolation.

It is also alleged that some of the COVID-19 infected workers at Letšeng mingled and reported to work amid having contracted the virus and spread the infection leaving workers in panic.

Sources also alleged workers who were tested on Tuesday July 21, reported to work the following day prior to receiving their results and only for their results to reveal they had the virus.

“This made us very uneasy seeing them being in contact with colleagues yet they had not received their results.

“Now that they have tested positive, it means others have already been exposed to the virus and are likely to be infected too,” said another sourced placed at the mine.

The source said anxiety at the mine intensified when workers of Industrial and Mining Solutions tested positive for coronavirus.

She said contact tracing was done with those that had been in contact with the ones who had tested positive, however reported for work the next day without before receiving their test results.

“Those that tested positive were quarantined for two to three days then they were transported home for self-isolation while those whose symptoms were getting worse were taken to quarantine facilities in Teyateyaneng,” she said.

While personal sanitizer and masks are provided for employees, the Centre learned social distancing is a challenge for those that work in pairs or more at certain work stations at the mine.

Sources also revealed Letšeng has gone for six to seven days without clean running water in the past week making it difficult for employees to regularly wash hands in line with COVID-19 mitigation procedures and also be hydrated.

Sources said it was only when they threatened to stop operations for their safety that management took action to sort out the water crisis at the mine.

Furthermore, the Centre learned the mine workers are now weary of getting tested because the testing company, South Africa’s Liselo Labs has not been approved for COVID-19 testing by the WHO and its tests results are preliminary and require further verification by the South African based National Institute for Communicable Disease.

Sadiyya Ahmed, an Accounting Officer of Industrial and Mining Solutions, confirmed employees of the company were indeed tested on Tuesday last week, but she disputed claims that they went on site a day later as “they were in isolation”.

“We did not do maintenance that day so they did not go to site as the tests were made at Afriski Mountain Resort where they were subsequently isolated while awaiting results which came back the following day,” Ahmed said.

The Centre has learned Industrial and Mining Solutions employees indeed had a reservation with Afriski but contrary to what Ahmed said, the employees reportedly left the facility on Tuesday July 21 morning hours for the mine where they were tested and some later discovered they had COVID-19.

The source claimed those that tested positive were taken to the quarantine facility when their COVID-19 results were released.

Ahmed said of the tests conducted, 18 of their employees tested negative for COVID-19 while 9 tests came back positive.

She refuted claims that among her employees are foreigners but argued they are all Basotho who have not had any travel history to South Africa since the initial lockdown in March.

Leisanyane told the Centre they have very strict precautions at Letšeng in line with WHO COVID guidelines.

He said upon entry, they check their personnel body temperatures, sanitize them and provide masks, face shields and Personal Protective Equipment.

“For social distancing purposes, supporting staff who mainly work in offices are working from home, and those on-site wok in shifts” Leisanyane said.

With Liselo Labs assistance, Leisanyane says the mine has conducted 1,313 tests which he regards as screening as “…we do this for purposes of the safety of workers and the operation of the mine and we are not an official national body or government”.

But Leisanyane refused to divulge the number of persons tested positive for COVID-19 since Liselo labs started doing tests at the mine.

Leisanyane said they grabbed Liselo’s services when government cut ties with it for their services as government is slow-paced which can be dire if the mine depended on it entirely.

He said they are satisfied with Liselo’s services as there has been 100 percent correlation with results conducted by the government as far as the mine results are concerned.

Leisanyane claimed no visitors are allowed to enter the mine premises if they do not pass through the screening and their temperature is above 38 degrees.

“Our workers on the other hand are isolated in their rooms where they stay alone to avoid contact if they are suspected while waiting for the results which take up to a day to be released.

“Those that test positive are taken to the official quarantine facilities where for national records they are tested again,” Leisanyane explained.

He confirmed that foreign employees have been allowed to return to work albeit under very strict cross border control measures to mitigate COVID-19 infection.

Leisanyane said such foreign workers have to produce valid work permits which verify them as workers of the Letšeng and that they had undergone COVID-19 testing in South Africa and have to produce a clearance certificate at the border before crossing.

“Even then, we test them when they get here and quarantine them and they only work after the quarantine period is over,” claimed Leisanyane.

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