Five Key Factors of Community Engagement in a COVID-19 World
It’s become a truism to state that the world has changed since early 2020, but for the next 24 months, until an effective vaccine is developed and distributed, a new set of ground rules will be in force and inform stakeholder engagement for the extractives industry.
Peru is a country with a precarious health infrastructure that is still teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed by an ever-increasing number of infected people. Quarantine and social distancing are the only approach Peru has been able to implement, with a mixed degree of success. Contracting a severe form of the disease in an area distant from a major medical facility is tantamount to a death sentence. In response to this reality, many rural communities have resorted to controlling their access to outsiders, even for those members of the locality who have been living in other parts of the country and are seeking to return. This is hardly surprising, in light of the serious harm this contagion could cause among human populations with little or no access to medical care.
Under these circumstances, the national authorities and the Peruvian Mining Society have agreed on a number of disease prevention protocols that will have to be implemented by all mining companies resuming activities. In addition, a number of mining companies have developed their own protocols which are more rigorous than the established national regulations, and could thus be categorised as best practices. However, the national guidelines did not involve an extensive consultation process with the potentially affected communities.
Traditionally, conflict between mining companies and their host communities in Peru has centered around issues of various forms of perceived or real environmental contamination, and whether the mining projects have been equitable in terms of sharing out the benefits generated by the activity. The conflicts have varied in frequency, intensity and duration depending on circumstances characteristic to each project and the host communities or region. However, this is the first time that all formal mining activity is perceived to present the same threat: favouring and/or exacerbating contagion of a pandemic. This challenge will require important changes to the way mining projects conduct their business, and the intensity of the threat will also vary according to the stages of the project, i.e. exploration, construction, operation and closure.
The development of these activities will now have to be constantly informed by two key criteria, namely:
- Do no harm
- Contribute to a healthy community by providing support in addressing the Covid-19 threat and potential impacts
A number of key activities will need to be modified in order to best address these criteria. They are outlined as follows:
1. Communities must be an active part of HSCE’s corporate policies
Traditionally, when one thought of HSEC, it referred basically to health issues directly related to the mining activities, their employees and contractors. The concept will now have to be expanded to health issues affecting the host communities, particularly the novel coronavirus. It will require expanding the company’s medical team to be able to provide testing and early treatment for the disease, not only for employees and contractors, but also members of the local population. Isolation wards will have to be built or allocated, and testing kits be made available not only for both company employees and contractors, but also host community members.
Recently, many rural natives have decided to return home from large cities where they were working to their villages and communities. This has happened as a result of job losses caused by the lockdown. A number of those “reverse-migrants” will undoubtedly be vectors for Covid-19, but nevertheless, as is generally the case, the mining companies will most likely be blamed. This is why a coronavirus baseline health study will be very important, both at employee/contractor level and in the local population. It will diminish the likelihood and plausibility of allegations that the contagion was introduced by the company.
2. Prevention and containment of the pandemic require new logistics for human resources
Typically, mining activities involve the movement of people from one part of the country (and the planet) to another. While this is not unusual, in the current climate, when infections are detected, it is probable that the mining company will be singled out as being responsible for the transmission of this highly contagious disease. This presents a number of challenges.
Firstly, in order to diminish this mobility, the length of the intervals between travelling to the mine site and returning home should be extended. Typically, the shifts are in the range of 14-20 days at site and 7-10 days at home. To reduce the intervals between travel to and from the mine site, extended shifts should be considered for the duration of the pandemic. Depending on agreements with the company unions, the periods could be extended to 60 days or more at the mine site.
Accommodation and mealtime periods will also need to reflect the need for social distancing. The number of mine workers per room will have to be reduced, as well as the amount of people sitting at the dining room tables. Buffet-type meals will have to be eliminated, among other changes.
3. Protection of the supply chain to ensure people’s health and the availability of needed goods and services for the operation.
A critical challenge will be the issue of hiring local labour and contracting local goods and services. To determine how these policies will be modified will depend on a number of considerations, such as the impact of hiring employees, suppliers and contractors on the local economy, and the risk of transmission of the disease to the local population arising from working at close quarters with people coming from areas with high infection rates. Some critical areas where the risk of contagion will be especially high are health (which will be carrying out extensive testing, as well as treatment of potential infections and confirmed cases), meal services and housekeeping and laundry services, among others. It will demand offsetting the risks and benefits inherent to these practices during a pandemic and the impacts on the risk of infection versus the economic damage to the local economy and lost livelihoods resulting from significantly reducing the hiring of local personnel and reducing or eliminating the sourcing of local goods and services.
4. Clear and consistent communications, while maintaining social distancing
Clear, timely and culturally appropriate communications between the company and local stakeholders will be critical. The two messages of “do no harm” and “contribute to a healthy community” need to be constantly and effectively relayed to local stakeholders. Obviously, the messages need to be accompanied by concrete actions to support them. Once again, the key issue of trust and confidence-building will be of critical importance. Without it, these measures will not succeed.
Another aspect of communications that needs to be addressed is a method that allows talking simultaneously to groups of stakeholders while maintaining social distancing and avoiding the traditional communal assemblies or town halls. This will require innovative approaches that will depend on access to the internet and mobile apps, as well as the creativity and willingness of all parties to maintain communication.
5. New priorities for Social Investment
Usually, there will be agreements already in place with the communities to contribute to local development by means of investment projects and programmes, typically focusing on improving agricultural yields, capacity-building for small businesses, improved access to markets, better health and education infrastructure, and better governance, among others. The current situation requires significantly improved hygiene and enhanced telecommunications. Thus, projects and programmes aimed at swift and safe access to potable water and sewage systems, as well as reliable distance communication, will become the new priorities. Pre-existing agreements will have to be renegotiated and rescheduled to accommodate these new priorities.
These are some of the challenges presented for doing business in the current Covid-19 context, and they can be developed in greater detail, but they illustrate how the focus on stakeholder engagement has been changed and will continue to evolve as the lesser known or understood impacts of this pandemic become clearer. It will also expand the reach of corporate social responsibility under extreme situations.