Covid-19 doesn’t wear a Blue Collar
It’s undeniable that Covid-19 has altered the way we live and established a new reality that has extraordinarily impacted many industries around the globe. Much has been said and written about changing consumer patterns, but retail isn’t the only hard-hit sector.
By Kevin Walsh
This year, coal prices dropped below average for the first time in over a decade, serving the energy industry a giant hit. But is this drop in prices good or bad; and as in all cases, who are the winners and who are the losers in this evolving crisis?
Coal and Covid-19: Closed mines and declining prices
We have long understood that the use of coal for energy generation is most harmful to the environment. Yet, with vast reserves of coal, the natural resource is one of the most reliable and most popular forms of fossil fuel energy production around the world. Not to mention, that the coal industry provides thousands of jobs and comprises the foundation of many countries’ economic systems.
Regardless of individual feelings towards or perceptions of the industry, there is one aspect of coal where there is unanimous agreement: Covid-19 isn’t the first nail in the coal industry’s coffin, but it is a heavy one.
Covid-19 has led to the closure of several coal mines. This caused a dramatic decline in the supply of coal, leading to a drastic drop in the global price of coal. Governments instituted several of these closures as a preventative measure to halt the spread of the disease. For most coal mines, these closures were not a direct result of an outbreak among workers. With the exception being the OKD mining operation in the Czech Republic.
Case study: The OKD in the Czech Republic
At the end of May, 82 miners, and several of their family members, of the now state-owned OKD’s Darkov mines tested positive for Covid-19. Yet even with the high number of confirmed Covid-19 cases, OKD executive director, Radim Tabášek, stated that since no one had displayed any serious symptoms, the mines would continue to operate without change.
The OKD's decision to remain open came after the outbreak in the Czech Republic had already forced the closure of schools and shops, mandated mask use in public, and closed the country’s borders at the beginning of March.
It was not until the infection rates rapidly doubled and reached 212 workers that the OKD took action and closed the Darkov mines. Two months later, in July, the OKD SM-South, CSM-North and CSA mines were also closed after the identification of a severe outbreak of Covid-19 at these locations. The OKD issued a press release stating, "This is a decision that our company made after finding out the results from the [coronavirus] testing at the CSM sites."
One can’t help but wonder, why did the mines continue to work without change after several individuals tested positive for Covid-19, clearly demonstrating that OKD workers were at an elevated risk for contracting the virus? Was it the fact that this mine now belongs to the government and is deemed 'too important' to be shut down?
What are the implications of the government’s neglect of OKD mineworkers?
While the primarily rural miners faced severe threats to their health and potential economic disaster, the Czech government was busy putting on a brave face and fighting for the safety and wellbeing of city dwellers in Prague. President Babiš positioned himself as a European hero and role model with his response to the pandemic, but little attention was paid to what was happening in the coal mines. The government, in its actions and neglect, effectively turned its back on the blue-collar workers that are the backbone of the Czech Republic’s economy.
Babiš’s government nationalized the OKD mines in what can only be described as a hostile takeover that swindled private investors who stepped in and saved the mine years ago when it nearly went under as a result of government mismanagement. Multiple pending court cases prove the gravity of the matter. With so much as stake, why would the government be so willing to risk the mine and the lives of the people who work there?
Covid-19 and the uncertain future of the coal industry
After the closure of the OKD mine, it has become clear that the nature of the coal industry is changing, and so is ours. Covid-19 poses a real threat to coal industry workers due to the nature of working conditions with workers often in close proximity to one another coupled with vulnerable ventilation systems employed in most mines.
Even if mines manage to contain and control outbreaks, the restrictions and limitations on workforces would make it impossible to excavate a reasonable amount of coal. The resulting decline in supply could make coal too rare and too expensive as a common energy source and with diminishing profits, not worth the investment. For better or worse, the coal-powered energy sector is facing an uncertain future.