Jesmin Papri: The coronavirus outbreak could impede the construction of Beijing-backed infrastructure projects across Bangladesh, officials said, amid reports that thousands of Chinese working on them have been stranded in China as a result, after going home for Lunar New Year festivities.
Bangladeshi health authorities so far have confirmed no cases of anyone being infected with the novel coronavirus in the South Asian country, but four construction workers from Bangladesh have been diagnosed with the virus in Singapore, the Ministry of Health in the city-state said Thursday.
“If the coronavirus situation does not improve, we will face problems,” Md Shafiqul Islam, project director of the Padma Bridge , Bangladesh’s largest-ever infrastructure construction project, told BenarNews this week. “It will exert a negative impact.”
Although construction on the bridge is ongoing, he was pointing to how the outbreak has reduced the size of the overall workforce, which relies heavily on Chinese workers, and slowed the progress of such mega-infrastructure projects in recent weeks.
Chinese engineers and laborers who work on those projects have been blocked from returning to Bangladesh as a result of travel restrictions imposed by Beijing during the outbreak, Islam and other officials said.
The outbreak of the virus, whose epicenter is in Wuhan, China, could further delay the U.S.$1.1 billion road-and-rail bridge across the Padma River – which was already behind schedule –and slow other Chinese-linked infrastructure projects pushed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party, officials said.
Meanwhile, at least 47,000 people have been diagnosed with the virus in 25 countries and 1,369 people have died from it, according to latest situation report released on Thursday by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Most of the infections and deaths have occurred in China. The U.N. agency has declared the outbreak a global emergency, and is now classifying the mystery virus as Coronavirus Disease 2019, or COVID-19.
Islam said about 1,000 Chinese nationals were employed as engineers or construction workers on the Padma Bridge alone, but the outbreak came as China and Chinese communities worldwide celebrated the arrival of the Year of the Rat. Lunar New Year festivities involve the largest annual migration of humans within mainland China and to and from the world’s most populous nation.
“Nearly 250 of them [bridge workers] have gone back to China for holiday making. But the Chinese government barred them from leaving China,” Islam said, adding he was also concerned about the timely arrival of construction supplies from Beijing.
“If the consignment does not arrive, we will face a shortage of supplies,” he said.
Impact on other projects
Elsewhere, Khurshedul Alam, the acting managing director of a joint venture building a $2.5 billion power plant near the Payra port south of Dhaka, confirmed that the project’s commissioning had also been delayed because Chinese construction workers had been blocked from re-entering Bangladesh.
“We can’t do the post-test-run maintenance as some workers are stuck in China in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic,” Alam told the Business Standard newspaper.
Obaidul Quader, Bangladesh’s minister for road transport and bridges, told reporters last week that construction of key projects could hit a snag if the virus outbreak lasted for more than two months.
“There would be some problems if it lingers for three to four months,” he said.
Quader said 332 of the Chinese nationals working at the Padma Bridge had left for China.
“Only 33 of the 332 people returned,” he said. “Eight of the 33 returnees are out of quarantine. Others remain in quarantine.”
Chinese construction companies, including the China Major Bridge Engineering Corporation, are building the 6.1-km (3.8-mile) Padma Bridge, which would connect the capital Dhaka with 21 southwestern and south-central districts.
The project appears to be behind schedule, but Islam, the project director, told BenarNews that engineers had installed 24 of the total 41 spans required to finish the project. Once complete, it would connect the capital Dhaka with Bangladesh’s central and southwestern districts.
Nurul Islam Sujan, Bangladesh’s railways minister, said the virus could also impact construction of a rail link that 878 Chinese nationals were rushing to connect with the Padma Bridge.
“China is a major development partner of Bangladesh, so it [coronavirus] would impact both Bangladesh and China,” Sujan told reporters.
Last week, Li Jiming, the Chinese ambassador to Dhaka, told reporters that about 8,000 Chinese nationals work at infrastructure projects in Bangladesh and about two-thirds of them had travelled to China for Chinese new year celebrations. None of them had tested positive for the virus, he said.
“Let general people be alert but don’t create panic,” the envoy said. “No panic, no rumor and be rational.”
Analyst: Virus could bring ‘bigger economic consequences’
China is also one of Bangladesh’s largest trading partners, registering annual bilateral trade of about $12 billion, with the imbalance tilted heavily in Beijing’s favor.
According to Mostafizur Rahman, a scholar at the think-tank Center for Policy Dialogue, the virus could deliver an economic shock to Bangladesh, because local workers have expressed concerns that they could get infected by working with the Chinese, an undetermined number of whom had been placed under quarantine by Bangladeshi authorities.
“The extent of negative economic impact in Bangladesh caused by coronavirus will depend on the prolongation of the epidemic,” he said. “We may face bigger economic consequences.”