COVID-19 and ASGM Communities – An Early Look at the Crisis
By Kevin Telmer and Marieke Kroll, March 23, 2020
COVID-19 is present now in all Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining countries and can be anticipated to follow a similar exponential growth pattern as has been observed in China, Iran or Italy, if current control measures to break the transmission chain or at least to delay and mitigate widespread community transmission fail. COVID-19 is currently spreading rapidly in many countries in Asia and Latin America that have large ASGM sectors, for example (as of April 14 ): Indonesia (4,839 cases), Philippines (5,223), Brazil (24,169 cases) or Ecuador (7,529 cases). The number of reported cases in Sub-Saharan African countries is on the rise (e.g., Burkina Faso: 515, Ghana: 636, Senegal: 299). Reported case numbers, however, depend on the testing capacity in each country and the number of people who seek medical care. Therefore, reported numbers are likely to be underreported in all countries – to various extents – and can change rapidly, with exponential increases as currently observable in the United States. With community transmission already ongoing in some West African countries, the number of cases could accelerate rapidly , which would have devastating impacts on these countries.
Health sector response
The health care systems of many ASGM countries – and especially in remote ASGM areas – have less resources and therefore a lower capacity to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak. In many ASGM countries, remote ASGM communities only have limited access to health care facilities due to geographical distances, lack of transport or adequacy and affordability of services. Furthermore, the health care system will experience difficulties in handling the pandemic, especially if the incidence (number of newly diagnosed cases per day) increases rapidly. This applies to several aspects including: (i) the ability to conduct tests and identify cases, which requires laboratory capacity and a sufficient workforce with adequate disease knowledge; (ii) the ability to isolate affected populations; and (iii) the ability to treat severe cases of COVID-19 that require hospitalization and respiratory support. In addition, misinformation, lack of information, or the inability to follow recommendations due to infrastructural barriers like a lack of safe water supply, hand sanitizers, soaps, disinfectants and tissue papers, could contribute to a rapid spread of the virus in ASGM countries and more so in ASGM communities.
Vulnerability of ASGM communities
ASGM communities are highly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks due to low health care capacities, underlying occupational health risks, and livelihood related risk factors. While the remoteness of some ASGM communities might delay initial exposure to the virus, most communities are connected to urban centers and other areas through migrant workers, goods and services supply chains, and gold trade. ASGM communities are therefore at risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, particularly if containment efforts fail. At the same time, containment efforts in some ASGM countries have already disrupted the local and national gold trade, causing income losses for miners before the first case of COVID-19 has even been confirmed in their community (see income and markets).
Current evidence suggests that COVID-19 tends to be most severe in people aged 60 plus years and people with underlying health conditions (e.g., respiratory, cardiovascular or immunocompromising diseases). The ASGM workforce tends to consist of younger workers (16 to 40 years) and healthy, young workers might only suffer from mild symptoms. However, underlying conditions related to occupational health risks, esp. silicosis as obstructive lung disease, but also mercury induced organ damage, can increase the severity of the course of the COVID-19 disease. In poverty-driven ASGM communities, livelihood-related risk factors such as malnutrition, lack of hygiene and related communicable diseases, can also increase the severity of COVID-19, causing a higher mortality rate.
Poverty induced increase in ASGM activities
The impact of COVID-19 on the global economy will cause a loss of formal jobs and likely an increase in the number of artisanal gold miners. The COVID-19 pandemic is going to significantly impact the economy of most ASGM countries. A loss of formal jobs in other sectors (e.g., tourism, service sector, manufacturing, basic labour) will likely cause an increase in the number of people who are going to make a living in the ASGM sector. As unemployment grows and incomes drop in ASGM countries (as is expected in non-ASGM countries), an increasing number of households could be pushed into trying to make a living through ASGM. This may lead to increased migration into ASGM sites and potentially an increase in occupational accidents due to ‘unskilled’ persons entering the ASGM business. This could also lead to increased tensions in ASGM communities due to increased competition over resources and access to disrupted markets.
COVID-19 in ASGM countries could exacerbate gender inequity in the sector. An influx of predominantly male workers can push women into more marginal and vulnerable roles in the ASGM sector, impacting their income and work safety. In some areas, women currently employed in the sector might also be displaced by new male workers; new female workers entering the sector might face greater barriers.
COVID-19 in ASGM countries could lead to increased child and youth labour. Children and youth seem to be less vulnerable to COVID-19. Child and youth labour might be on the rise in some affected countries to support the household income or to replace sick or deceased household members at an ASGM site.
COVID-19 may lead to increased mercury use if desperation grows in ASGM communities. An economic shock to ASGM communities does not provide the economic space to work towards the elimination of mercury use that is required for income-deprived communities to make the transition to better practices. Though non-mercury methods can be more profitable, they require more knowledge and investment which will be in shorter supply due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19. At the same time, these disruptions are most likely also going to affect availability and price of mercury in local markets.
While international gold prices have risen, COVID-19 related disruptions such as travel and movement restrictions have caused artisanal gold supply chains to collapse, dramatically dropping the field price. These disruptions have strongly hurt miners’ incomes and may strongly impact the productivity of mine sites. As COVID-19 affects the global economy, including the gold price and the price and availability of goods, it has rapidly affected the income of ASGM miners and their communities. Many have already seen income drop by 50% and it may worsen.
Generally, productivity and income are dropping due to increasing logistical complications with supply chains, labour disruptions, and potentially government mandated lock downs whether in ASGM communities or in centres that service ASGM communities. Lock downs, to date however are few with many countries declaring that mining is an essential activity in recognition of the devastating impact that reductions in income could cause on the poor. As well, some governments do not possess the capacity to implement and enforce a lock-down in remote rural areas.
African countries have seen local gold markets collapse due to the disruption of global air networks which are the backbone for large parts of its ASGM gold trade. For example, capital flows through Dubai’s Gold Market are impaired as it is currently shuttered and being disinfected (video). Since most of Africa’s ASGM gold is usually transported via couriers hand-carrying gold to the United Arab Emirates which has suspended almost all international travel, the gold market is effectively frozen. Gold is a cash business and since most African exporters work with their own capital, they rely on quick turnover on their gold stocks to continue purchasing. As a result, despite record high international gold prices, African gold miners have little demand for their product and local buying prices are way down (Shawn Blore, AGC). In Tanzania, the disruption in the ASGM supply chain caused downward shifts in prices as early as March 25 (Judith Karangi, SDGAIA). Compounding this problem is the fact that the prices of basic goods have begun to rise. Together these shifts have immediately begun causing a net drop in income and transfer of wealth away from miners and their communities. One additional cause for concern is that under the circumstances of lower gold prices, higher goods prices, and potentially increasing health care costs (e.g. COVID-19 within their households or hospitalizations), miners might take more risks to try to extract more gold in order to pay for these increased expenses.
To document the collapsing artisanal gold market in its three main regions, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, we have collecting price information from our field projects and our field network (20+ countries). Table 1 presents our best aggregated data from six countries, intended to represent the main regions to some degree. It shows South American prices down by around 50%, West African prices down by 25 to 40%, and it shows variable prices in Asia with Mongolian field prices unchanged, and those in Papua New Guinea down by about 10%. This is a work in progress and the table will be expanded as we are able to obtain more reliable data.
We have unconfirmed reports from many other countries that field prices are generally down 50% (Zimbabwe, DRC, Zambia), but that some supply chains and prices remain thus far little impacted (Suriname, Mongolia, Brazil). The reasons for differing impacts in different national and regional markets are likely related to the characteristics of their supply chains (see AGC’s blog on Swiss refineries and Dubai lockdown). Those that are dependent on systems that have shut down due to COVID-19 have seen steep price declines. Those that have resilient or redundant systems and structures have not seen price declines as large. For example, where there are national entities involved in buying artisanal gold, supply chains are less dependent on international trade and have fared better. Mongolia may be a good example of this. Where there are many trading routes where one can turn on if another shuts down, price declines have not yet been heavily impacted. Papua New Guinea may be an example of this (Australia, Italy, Singapore, Hong Kong are all clients). Supply chains dependent on one route and international trade have seemingly been the most impacted – central Africa’s trade with Dubai, and Latin America’s trade with Switzerland.
Pure Gold (99.9%)
|% International Price
|% International Price
|Papua New Guinea||33.73||74.8%||64.7%|
Supply chains and cash flow to communities is clearly being impacted in different ways in different regions. We are currently collecting information though our local partners and national teams and will update this section on a regular basis. Quantitative data on changes in production and trade will follow soon.
The crash in buying prices is most accelerated in Africa. There is concern about availability of goods including food. The flow of capital from the Middle east for buying ASGM gold has been strongly attenuated if not shut down all together by the shutdown of global air travel. Trade data from COMTRADE up to 2016 showed revenues from ASGM gold into Dubai of around 800 million USD/month. It may be 1 billion USD/month currently. If gold stops getting bought, and this cash flow into African ASGM communities is truncated, there is a risk people will experience shortages of food and basic necessities. Arbitrage opportunities may be large and lead to new participants and of trade pathways. Residual buying with existing capital may dry up soon.
Burkina Faso (separate AGC blog): Quarantines in Hard-Hit Burkina Faso knock gold prices by 20%. Faced with expert predictions that the COVID-19 epidemic in Burkina Faso could rival that of Italy or Spain, authorities in the West African nation have implemented sweeping lockdown and quarantine measures. The measures – along with the many international lockdowns now in place – have slowed or halted artisanal gold exploitation and significantly reduced the price artisanal miners receive for their gold.
Mongolia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Indonesian ASGM communities are all in various levels of closure. Many miners in PNG are not able to travel to sell their gold due to national travel restrictions. Some buying in centres continues while buyers still have capital but this is expected to dry up. There is not yet a significant change in price of gold at field gold shops but there is significant concern about goods. Some countries such as Indonesia have state buying entities (PT Antam for example) and strong connections to regional gold hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong with many transport routes. These attributes may preserve liquidity and keep ASGM gold trading prices closer to the international spot price for a longer period of time than for Africa, but truncation or discounted buying is expected in remote areas.
Philippines, Luzon (separate blog): The recently declared extension of the enhanced community quarantine in Luzon could well mean further declining prices. In a mining community in Itogon, northern Luzon, miners have found themselves with very reduced access to gold buyers, who under normal circumstances, operate in nearby cities that are now subject to quarantine. Public transportation has been suspended and strict enforcement checkpoints have been put in place. Gold production in the Itogon area has been suspended. Better off miners – financiers and tunnel owners – have resorted to selling gold they stashed prior to the quarantine order. Subsistence level miners, the vast majority, now have no source of income to meet their daily needs.
Mongolia (separate blog): Local gold prices in Mongolia have not yet been strongly affected. Mongolia has tightened its isolation measures twice – once for 10 days during the Lunar New Year celebrations, and a second time for a few days after March 10, when the first case of COVID-19 was reported. During these days, miners were prohibited from travelling to their mine sites. Otherwise, mining has continued as normal. While no dramatic impact of COVID-19 has yet been observed, the closure of all educational institutions at all levels does risk harming the productivity of women miners who carry the double burden of taking care of their children and families as well as earning an income. Women miners are faced with the choice of foregoing income to stay home and care for their children, or bringing their children with them to an active mine site with its risks.
Countries in the region experience dynamic shifts but no clear price movements yet. Concern over the weaknesses of local currencies may have led to short term hoarding of artisanal gold reflecting a safe haven approach to offset currency depreciation, and thereby buoying the price paid for artisanal gold. However, some small scale formal artisanal gold producers have seen their regular downstream buyers cease to buy and are looking for other avenues. Colombia is concerned that if formal trading is curtailed, gold flows may slip back into criminal channels. In Suriname, there is a push for trade only to occur in Surinamese dollars.
Colombia, Choco (separate AGC blog): The liquidity crisis affecting artisanal gold mining communities around the globe has the potential to turn into a humanitarian crisis. As miners’ ability to sell their gold for cash deteriorates, the growing concern is that miners will be left with gold in their pockets but no food on the table. The most at risk are those rural and isolated communities whose economies are almost entirely dependent on gold, such as Choco, Colombia. Local miners from Istmina, Choco, have told the AGC that as of the week of March 30th, all 15 of the formal gold buying shops have shut their doors. There are already miners stuck with gold in their hands and nowhere to sell. One female miner – the primary bread winner for a family of five – put the situation in perspective. “With the closure of all the local gold shops,” she told the AGC, “the real threat is not the COVID-19 virus but dying of hunger.”
This collapse in the liquidity of the artisanal gold market in developing countries is now occurring around the the world and will have a devastating effect on jobs and cash flow to rural communities. Their ability to cope with COVID-19 directly and its economic consequences will be strongly impacted. In recognition of this, Reuters today (March 31) wrote the piece entitled Subsistence miners lose out as coronavirus crushes local gold prices (https://reut.rs/3dJfm75). The importance or linkage of this collapse to global markets is not yet clear, but it would certainly be very positive to restore artisanal gold markets as soon as possible. Buying artisanal gold for a fair price can be part of the solution to the COVID-19 crisis for rural mining communities to mitigate indirect impacts on livelihoods.
Artisanal gold is an excellent mechanism to transfer wealth from rich developed centres into poor remote communities (AGC, 2008). This is exactly what these communities need now to have the best chance to mitigate COVID-19 impacts, both direct health impacts and economic recession. To do this, artisanal gold liquidity needs to be maintained (the ease to buy and sell gold). This may require assistance and innovation.
In terms of a fair price, pre-COVID-19 margins, perhaps minus new expenses if they have risen, can be a good benchmark. Typically remote miners get 80% of the international spot price for low volumes of a few grams, and 90-95% for kilo volumes in regional gold shops, depending on government production taxes or royalties. There could be new logistical expenses due to COVID-19 disruptions that may need to be taken into account. Aiming for pre-COVID-19 margins would mean that livelihoods would be less impacted by collapsing markets and impacts would be limited mostly to production decreases due to shutdowns or other restrictions on the ability to work. In other words, if liquidity is maintained and miners are still able to work, they would get paid. Maintaining liquidity for artisanal gold is therefore a very good goal in terms of mitigating indirect COVID-19 impacts on these communities. It ensures that money can be delivered into these remote communities, if they are active, or in the case of shutdowns, when they become active again. The artisanal mining sector can be employed to deliver money into needy communities.
Another consideration is that governments are flooding the world with cash through fiscal stimulus and making cash very cheap through monetary policy (slashing interest rates to near zero) in an attempt to save the economy and jobs. Artisanal gold mining is a hugely important economy and source of jobs and livelihoods for the rural poor in 80+ countries, so it seems both appropriate and tactical that it receive the same consideration for recovery efforts as other businesses. In fact, it could be one of the cheapest and most effective ways to stimulate these rural economies to help fight COVID-19 because governments don’t need to just give money away – as is the case in many country’s response measures. We just have to buy their gold. This is of course dependent on them being able to produce gold – the topic for tomorrows update.
Gold dust liquidity. Artisanal gold mining communities do have their own money supply in the form of gold dust which can be a relatively liquid asset locally. In many remote communities a set of scales in a grocery store is not unheard of. This keeps the flow of goods going much more so than a barter system of potatoes for carrots since gold is fungible even locally. It acts exactly like money. This is at least some good news for ASGM communities. They can substitute gold for cash. Transactions are more complex than with cash but they can still occur and local economies can continue to operate to a limited degree.
Reuters: Subsistence miners lose out as coronavirus crushes local gold prices (March 31, 2020)
PlanetGold: Monitoring the Impacts of COVID-19 on Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining (April 1, 2020)
Delve: Impacts of COVID-19 on Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining: Insights from the ground
The original Article can be found here: www.artisanalgold.org/library.