Checking health threats in mining
The global mining sector is a lucrative business worth billions of dollars. The market is expected to grow from $1.64 trillion in 2020 to $1.84 trillion in 2021.
However, in some developing countries such as Malawi, the reality is different, with growth in the mining and quarrying industry estimated at 3.6 percent in 2019 compared to 2.1 percent estimated for 2018.
According to the Reserve Bank of Malawi, the sector was projected to grow by 5.8 percent in 2020.
Mining and quarrying activities remain subdued, contributing less than 10 percent to gross domestic product.
And miners in the industry, especially those in the informal sector, struggle to make ends meet and face health threats as they carry out mining activities.
One major threat is tuberculosis (TB), an infectious bacterial disease that mainly affects the lungs.
According to the National TB Control Programme, eight percent of people who are on TB treatment die every year.
Cecilia Besamu is a small-scale miner from Chisazima Village in Traditional Authority Kaomba in Kasungu Distric.
She mines quarry stones which can be used for constructing various infrastructures including roads.
Besamu was born in 1968 and has nine children to feed. She relies on her quarry business to make ends meet.
She began her business in 2003 and she buys large boulders of quarry, from Chipala Hill, which she breaks into smaller particles using a hammer.
Two years ago, she began to experience a persistent cough, coupled with body pains especially in her joints.
“I did not think much about it that time. It began slowly and gradually I began coughing violently. At night my body could be drenched in sweat and I would feel very weak in the morning,” she explains.
Little did she know that the tiny particles of dust that she was inhaling as she broke down her quarry stones had gradually developed in her lungs.
This began to affect her livelihood as she could neither transport the larger boulders by wheelbarrow from Chipala Hill, which is about a kilometre from her home, nor break the larger stones as this would result in coughing fits and severe weakness.
“I did not suspect that it could be TB. This is when a mobile van from Kasungu District Hospital visited the community in which I live. They raised awareness on TB and its symptoms. I decided to provide sputum and my results came out positive for TB,” Besamu says.
She was immediately referred to the hospital where she was put on six-month treatment.
Today, Besamu is healthy and continues her mining business. She always wears a facemask to avoid inhaling the tiny dusty particles as she breaks the stones.
She is also part of Kasungu Chipala Committee which now sensitises miners to the dangers of conducting their activities without the required protection.
The committee also raises awareness among community members on the prevention, dangers and symptoms of the disease, among others.
Alfred Kafamtandala is Besamu’s husband and explains that her TB diagnosis was very difficult on her family and him, especially as he was her guardian in making sure that she adhered to the treatment.
“I am also a miner and farmer and, when combined, our income has helped to fend for the family. We didn’t know at the time that there was danger of contracting TB from the business,” Kafamtandala says.
Now, he and his wife always wear facemasks when breaking quarry stones and have enough time to rest.
Chairperson of Kasungu Chipala Committee, Wilson Moses Nkhoma, admits it is still a challenge to convince some miners to wear protective gear and put TB at bay.
“It is frustrating when our advice is ignored. We are not giving up; we continue sensitising our fellow miners to the importance of protecting themselves in their work,” Nkhoma says.
TB Officer for Kasungu, Wongani Maseko, says 10 mining groups in the district have been trained in screening fellow miners by observing if they are displaying any symptoms of the disease.
Maseko says last year alone, out of 376 cases of TB that were recorded in the district, 15 were among miners.
He states that the miners were screened for the disease after such committees reported them as suspects following symptoms they were displaying.
Elsewhere in Balaka, Aida Bauleni started working in a mine near her village when she was in Standard Three to augment her family’s income.
“When I was 15, I started to experience persistent coughing which grew worse as the days went by. I was diagnosed with TB,” Bauleni recalls.
As part of her treatment, she received 30 injections and finally recovered just like her mother who was diagnosed with the condition in 1019.
They are now both extra cautious when it comes to adhering to safety measures by always wearing facemasks.