In northern Brazil, iron ore keeps flowing as Vale miners battle coronavirus

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - In late April, Evaldo Fidelis, a 35-year-old tractor operator at Vale SA’s massive iron ore mine in northern Brazil, came down with a dry cough.

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Soon, he said, six others in his crew of about 40 workers fell ill with classic symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Fidelis, a labor organizer who tested positive for the virus 10 days later, is far from alone.

An isolated area in Brazil’s Para state centered around three Vale-owned iron ore mines - S11D, Serra Norte and Serra Leste - is home to a coronavirus outbreak that has claimed 64 lives in the nearby town of Parauapebas alone, municipal data show.

Analysts have been watching the situation at the mines, gaping pits at the edge of the Amazon rainforest that produce over 7% of the world’s iron ore. Any production slowdown could affect prices for the key ingredient in steel, an indispensable part of every industry from automaking to shipbuilding.

Vale and local authorities are striking an unusual partnership to fight the outbreak. Starting on Saturday, Vale and the mayors’ office said they will begin a joint program to test some 100,000 people in Parauapebas, perhaps the most widespread testing initiative undertaken by a major mining firm to date.

A city of almost 200,000 people, Parauapebas had 1,900 coronavirus cases as of Thursday, more than four times the average rate in Brazil, which has the highest caseload of any country outside the United States.

The tens of thousands of miners here have been deemed essential by the government and have been heading to work every day even as tens of million of Brazilians have been huddled inside for months due to quarantine orders.

“This is a microcosm of Brazil and the world,” said Fidelis, the tractor operator. “The mining sector has really helped the pandemic spread in the region.”

Vale declined to discuss the outbreak described by Fidelis or disclose the number of confirmed coronavirus cases at its mines, citing worker confidentiality.

But the company said it has taken numerous steps to help the region prepare for the virus and protect employees, including testing all workers entering its mines in Para starting April 27.

Parauapebas officials recognized the city was in danger early on due to the movement of mining workers and specialists from outside the region, the mayor’s office said in a statement. Among the measures taken, the mayor’s office said, has been the closure of the local airport and a Vale-owned passenger train.

For now, Brazil’s biggest miner said, the coronavirus has not materially impacted its production in the region, even after it reduced its workforce to a bare minimum needed to keep output flowing safely.

But every bed is in Parauapebas is now occupied and most new coronavirus patients are now transferred out of the city, the mayor’s office told Reuters.

Reporting by Marta Nogueira; Additional reporting by Roberto Samora in Sao Paulo; Writing and additional reporting by Gram Slattery in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Christian Plumb and David Gregorio