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News Extra: Mining and oil companies step up safeguards in West Africa to stem Ebola risk

15 November 2014

As the Ebola virus spreads across West Africa, extractive companies based in the region are taking urgent steps to protect their employees and operations. The first deaths from the current outbreak were confirmed in Guinea last March, and the outbreak has since spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The World Health Organization (WHO) says more than 3,300 people have died of the virus so far.

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To reduce the risk of transmission amongst employees, Rio Tinto, which is spending $3 billion with Chinese partner Chinalco on the Simandou iron ore project in Guinea, has asked staff who have visited the highest-risk areas to stay at home for up to 21 days before returning to work.

Rio Tinto has also donated $100,000 to the World Health Organization's work in the area and is making sanitation equipment available to local people.

China Union closed its Liberian operation in August. It had projected production of about 2.4 million tons of iron ore in 2014.

Perseus Mining, which has mines in Ghana and Ivory Coast, has issued health warnings and barred anyone coming from Guinea, Sierra Leone or Liberia from its sites.

It has also bought infra-red heat monitors to take the temperatures of workers to identify anyone running a fever, which could signal infection by the Ebola virus. Similar devices have been deployed in the past at airports to identify carriers during outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), bird flu and swine flu.

The world's largest steelmaker ArcelorMittal has seen work disrupted on its iron ore mine expansion project in Yekepa and port facilities at Buchanan in Liberia, after contractors declared force majeure and moved people out of the country.

And in early October, Exxon Mobil Corp said some of its oil and gas activities in West Africa had been disrupted by the outbreak, including plans to drill off the Liberian coast.

Exxon, which has operations in both Liberia and Nigeria, is prohibiting some employees from travelling to the countries directly affected by the disease, and is taking precautionary measures related to workers' families, the company said.

In a report by Reuters on the spread of the disease, David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, called on companies to consider installing sonar bat repellent technology at mine sites.

Some medical experts believe that bats and other animals are the natural hosts of the Ebola virus, which has led Guinea to ban consumption of bat soup, grilled bat and other such items. Employees should also be discouraged from eating bush meat such as monkeys, rats and other rodents, Heymann said.

The most effective approach is for companies to conduct an assessment to determine the risk factors and take steps to ensure  they can be mitigated, he concluded.

Nigeria, the economic powerhouse of the region, has also been affected, but on a smaller scale. Up to 20 had been diagnosed with the disease by September and companies with large operations in that country remain on their guard.

In mid-September, Royal Dutch Shell CFO Simon Henry told CBNC that Ebola was still a major concern for the company's operations in Nigeria, where Shell employ 6,000 staff and travel restrictions in and out of Nigeria had been put in place.

Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) Corporate Media Relations Manager Precious Okolobo said Shell Companies in Nigeria had adopted practical measures to limit the risk of spread of the virus. Internal anti-Ebola measures included infra-red thermal scanning at the entrances of Shell premises, provision of hand sanitisers, and convening of staff awareness sessions. SPDC has also donated ambulances, trucks, medical supplies and internet facilities to the Lagos and Port Harcourt Ebola Centres.

And Ebola may well have been contained in Nigeria.  No new cases have been reported there for almost a month, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said at the end of September, and the country could be declared Ebola-free by the end of October.

But the situation facing the three countries at the heart of the outbreak, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, remains particularly dire.

Sierra Leone's Agriculture Minister Joseph Sam Sesay told the BBC in late August that the country’s economy had been reduced by 30% because of Ebola. Military road blocks, essential to stop the spread of the disease from epicentres, was having a devastating effect on the key agricultural sector, he said.

Separate reports by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank show the economic situation is as bad in Liberia, which has seen the largest number of Ebola deaths – almost 1,400 by end-September.

The FAO says that food is in increasingly short supply, with fields in some regions having been abandoned. The IMF said restrictions on public transport, internal travel and trade are burdening the country’s ability to distribute the food that is available.

Transportation has been badly disrupted, one indicator being a drop of between 20 and 35% in fuel sales. And the services sector, about half of Liberia’s economy, employing about 45% of the work force, has experienced a drop in turnover of 50 to 75%, the World Bank says.

On top of all this, Liberian government revenues have dropped by 20%, Liberia’s foreign minister Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan told the United Nations in September. “Consequently, our ability to provide basic social services and continue to fund key development projects are significantly diminished.”

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