Lung test delay halts compensation for South African gold miners

Miners suffering from lung diseases are more vulnerable to Covid-19, say doctors

South Africa’s coronavirus outbreak is expected to severely delay the compensation of ex-miners due a share of a five billion rand (€261 million) lung disease settlement agreed with six gold-mining companies.

The emergence of Covid-19 has forced the Tshiamiso Trust, which was established recently to implement the 2018 settlement, to suspend the lung function test designed to assess how damaged a miner’s lungs have been as a consequence working underground.

Known as spirometry, the test involves a person blowing into a device to see how quickly they can empty their lungs. But the South African Thoracic Society, the local representative society for pulmonologists, fears it could contribute to the spread of coronavirus and has banned its use.

Although there are other lung tests available or under development, Tshiamiso Trust chairwoman May Hermanus said that to date none had been deemed safe to use during the pandemic.

Doctors believe miners suffering from the lung diseases that the settlement covers – silicosis and occupational tuberculosis – are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, as it affects a person’s respiratory system.

Ex-miners who can show they fell ill while working for the gold producers are eligible to receive up to 500,000 rand (€26,000) each.

The companies involved in the settlement, which remains the first of its kind in South Africa, are African Rainbow Minerals, Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony and Sibanye-Stillwater.

While the total number of miners to be compensated remains unclear, the Justice for Miners Campaign says up to 500,000 people could be eligible from across southern Africa.

Processing claims

Ms Hermanus said about 70 per cent of the 1.3 million miners who worked in South Africa between 1965 and 2019, the period the settlement covers, were employed by the six gold producers party to it. But she said most studies done on the prevalence of silicosis and TB in South Africa’s miners suggested a fraction of this number would be eligible for compensation.

Ms Hermanus said that while spirometry remained off limits, the trust would focus on processing claims from ex-miners who already had medical records stored on government or mining company databases.

She said the trust had already begun a pilot programme to track down individuals suffering from second-degree silicosis, which was the most serious category provided for under the settlement.

Earlier this month the Justice for Miners campaign wrote to the trust warning its decision to consider only claims from ex-miners with existing medical records – because of the ban on spirometry – would “severely delay” the compensation process.

Campaign member Richard Pakleppa said it was concerned that "a whole lot of people will die" before receiving a payment, given that silicosis and TB were progressive diseases.

South Africa has had more than 560,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the fifth-highest in the world, and 10,621 deaths.

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