DR Congo locks down mining area, some workers repatriated over coronavirus

By Hereward Holland
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DR Congo locks down mining area, some workers repatriated over coronavirus

A police officer stands at the deserted crossing point between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at the Petite Barriere in Goma

By Hereward Holland

KINSHASA (Reuters) - The Democratic Republic of Congo imposed a two-day lockdown in part of its copper and cobalt heartland and a union official said a Glencore mine in a neighbouring province had repatriated some foreign workers in response to an expanding coronavirus outbreak.

The governor of Haut-Katanga province, Jacques Kyabula, issued the lockdown order late on Sunday and said the boundaries of the province would also be closed after two people tested positive for the virus in the provincial capital, Lubumbashi.

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.

Ivanhoe and MMG Ltd, which also have concessions in Haut-Katanga, had no immediate comment.

In neighbouring 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.

Charles Kumbi, a regional programme director with the IndustriALL union, which has an affiliate at KCC, said the workers had been sent home on technical leave but would resume work once the situation got back to normal.

A Glencore spokesman declined to comment.

The governor of Lualaba province, which is home to several other large copper and cobalt projects, ordered all public markets to close on Monday except those selling food and medicine.

The governor, Richard Muyej, told Reuters that the order does not apply to mines. He also said the Haut-Katanga governor's order does not apply to mining shipments originating in Lualaba, which could still be trucked through Haut-Katanga to the Zambian border.

Together, Haut-Katanga and Lualaba account for nearly all of Democratic Republic 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.

"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."

Authorities said they were trying to locate passengers who were on a flight on Sunday from the national capital Kinshasa to Lubumbashi, on which two passengers tested positive for the coronavirus.

In a video posted on Twitter, Governor Kyabula asked them to stay at home and contact the medical services.

Only the military, police, medical staff and authorised civil servants will be allowed to travel around the province, he said. Otherwise, transport from trucks to bicycles and barges has been halted.

"No activity will be tolerated in Haut-Katanga during this 48-hour period," Kyabula said.

The two cases from the flight took the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Congo to 30, including two deaths.

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)