The first case of COVID 19 in the mining sector has been confirmed: an administrative worker in Cerro Verde, the Freeport McMoran company’s mine just outside the city of Arequipa. This has focused the spotlight on the difficult policy issues in managing the virus in an export sector that is crucial to the dynamism of the economy.

The emergency legislation imposing quarantine on all households and businesses left key sectors such as mining with some flexibility, but under instruction to mobilise only key workers to sites and to implement health protection. Many mining companies have chosen to pause activities,. Freeport McMoran paused its activities at Cerro Verde. This did nothing to prevent the first infection.

The most obvious issue for mining is the economic imperative to keep exports flowing, but it also relates to major safety issues, such as maintaining tailings dams, explosive storage areas and water treatment plants. However, most mines are located in rural areas amid poor rural populations, often already affected by contamination and damage to water and livelihoods from the presence of extractive activities.

Up to now, the virus in Peru has been an urban problem. Almost 100% of cases have been identified as in urban areas, and of these 86% in Lima and Callao. While we lack data for rural areas, the urban concentration is no surprise. It is significant that the first mining case is in Cerro Verde, a mine close to a major city. Workers live and commute from Arequipa. As De Echave at Cooperacción has pointed out, this creates an efficient pathway for the virus to propagate.

Were the virus to spread to rural areas, this could be disastrous. We may think of vulnerability as a function of:

  • access to and quality of medical facilities and resources
  • underlying health conditions (such as poor nutrition, toxicity from contaminated water)
  • the fragility of the local economy
  • difficulty of reaching the population with public policy.

We can see that the virus would have major effects in exacerbating inequalities. Even the bono requires an identity card, a known birth date and physical access to the banks paying the cash. These conditions do not exist over large areas of the highlands.

The closure of mining operations looks like the right decision for the welfare and the rights of the poor to health, security and livelihoods. But it is not without its own costs.