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Celebrating Chile’s conquest

THE successful rescue of all the 33 miners trapped underground for more than two months in Chile has resonated in celebrations throughout the country. The world joined Chileans in watching the agony of the men buried more than half a kilometre underground.

The rescue exceeded expectations all the way. Officials initially said the miners might not be rescued before December. When the drill established the escape shaft through the underground trap, the estimates for the rescue were reduced to between 36 and 48 hours.

The actual time: 22 hours, 39 minutes, to the delight of family members, rescue crews and officials who cheered and clapped as each miner arrived the surface and was taken to a hospital in nearby Copiapó for a thorough examination.

Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera was at the site to greet each rescued miner. His government had promised to bring the men back alive. He was ecstatic that he kept his words. The miners were trapped by a cave-in at the gold and copper mine on August 5. For 17 days, they were cut off from the surface. A drilling crew located them.

The miners set a record for surviving that long trapped underground. For the first 17 days, no one knew their fate. After they were located, the world watched in admiration as the men helped each other to survive. Technology came into play again, getting games, food and medication to the men.

Over 1,000 journalists covered the rescue operation at the remote San Jose mine in the Atacama Desert. Millions of television viewers around the world watched the rescue. Experts and technologies were sourced wherever they could be found to get the miners out of their trap.

“This mine will definitely never open again,” Pinera said. “Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility.”

He confirmed the rescue cost “somewhere between $10 and $20 million.” Private donations covered a third of the costs, state-owned Codelco, the country’s largest company and the government contributed the rest.

Chile depends on mining for 40 per cent of state’s earnings. The accident has already drawn attention to the safety standards in Chilean mines. The families of 27 of the 33 rescued miners have sued its owners for negligence and want compensations.

Government sacked top regulators after the accident, set up an investigation of the accident as well as Sernageomin, the industry’s regulator. At least 18 small mines were shut for safety violations.

Advances in technology have not minimised the dangers in the smaller mines in northern Chile, which employ about 10,000 people. According to Sernageomin about 34 people died every year on average in mining accidents in Chile since 2000. The highest figure of 43 was in 2008.

Luis Urzua, a shift foreman, was the last to be rescued. Pinera, almost in tears told him, “You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration.

“Chile today is more united and stronger than ever and I think that Chile is today a country more respected and more esteemed by the world.” Chile has promised to care for the miners for six months at least, until they are each healed.

Debates have begun whether the men would return to their risky job where they earn $1,600 (about N243,200) monthly. It would be up to them, but a lot of time is required to re-adjust to life on the surface before such a decision that most families would oppose.

All these leave us wondering what would have happened to these men if they were in Nigeria. Our emergency facilities are not up to scratch for this type of operation. Which medical facilities would have treated them? Would we have taken the welfare of ordinary miners serious enough to have sought the best technologies to get them out alive?

It is equally doubtful whether government would have thought the lives of the men merited an expenditure of more than N3 billion for their rescue.

Floods are dislocating our people, killing some of them, lead poisoning is claiming the lives of children in Kebbi and Zamfara states; and cholera is devastating some states across Nigeria. These emergencies fade beside the rescue operations in Chile. Why do our governments have minimal concerns for the welfare of our people? Why are our governments mostly self-serving?

Where governments care for their people, the people in turn support government in the drive for a better society. The participation of people in their governments is democracy.

Chile, a country of 16 million is not perfect. It has its problems, some similar to what most developing countries encounter. However, when the lives of their people, miners, were at risk, the country pulled all the stops to rescue them.

In Chile life is important, any life. This contrasts with the attitude in Nigeria, where governments rate only the lives of the high and mighty important.

Nigerians are not asking for perfect governments. They only want governments that would cater for them. When they watch fairy-like tales of government’s interest in the well being of the people — as the accident in Chile highlighted — they wonder what they have done wrong to deserve the type of treatment they get from various governments.


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