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VIRUS OUTBREAK

Covid-19 slows China's major projects in Asia

The setback follows a pushback against Belt and Road projects in several countries

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At Colombo's Port City, work is progressing slowly as nearly a third of the Chinese workers who left for the Chinese New Year holidays have not returned.

Colombo, Sri Lanka

FROM an artificial island in Sri Lanka to a bridge in Bangladesh and hydropower projects in Nepal and Indonesia, China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road plan is stuttering under the effects of the deadly novel coronavirus.

The Covid-19 outbreak that emerged in China in late-December and spread to dozens of countries has cut off the Chinese labour supplies and equipment imports needed to keep major infrastructure projects running.

More than 133 countries have imposed entry restrictions on Chinese citizens or people who have visited China to prevent the spread of the disease, data from China's National Immigration Agency showed.

Sri Lanka requires a 14-day quarantine for people arriving from China, and insists projects ensure that Chinese staff are restricted to construction sites and their dorms.

In Colombo's Port City - an artificial island the size of central London that is to house one of South Asia's biggest financial centres - work is progressing at a snail's pace as nearly a third of the Chinese workers who left for the Chinese New Year holidays have not returned.

The March opening of South Asia's tallest free-standing communications tower, built with Chinese state funding in the heart of Colombo, has also been delayed by two months.

"Major construction projects in Sri Lanka that are funded by China mostly employ Chinese construction workers and they have hit a snag," said Nissanka Wijeratne, secretary of the Sri Lanka Chamber of Construction Industries.

"Most of our Chinese colleagues want to return, but the local staff are afraid to work with them," said a Chinese foreman. "Work is slow and it isn't clear when things would return to normal."

Temperatures of all workers at the site are taken several times a day and masks and hand sanitisers have been distributed.

Two top Chinese decision-makers in the Port City project who had to return to prevent work from coming to a standstill were quarantined in a five-star hotel, said project manager Bimal Gonaduwage.

"At the beginning, there was a lot of panic among local workers, but now things have subsided," he said.

A small pharmacy near the Port City project was doing a brisk sale in an "ayurvedic-amulet" purported to "ward off infections". They are mostly bought by workers in the "China projects", the pharmacist Anjana Paramesh said.

The regulator of Chinese state-owned companies last week said the outbreak had caused "difficulties" for some overseas investments.

Some Chinese state-owned enterprises were "isolating the personnel to be dispatched (overseas) for 14 days in China and then another 14 days upon their arrival in the host countries before they begin work", said Peng Huagang, secretary-general of the state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission.

Bangladesh has stopped issuing visas to Chinese visitors, including Chinese workers.

Some 3,000 Chinese workers are employed at the China-funded US$2.5 billion 1,320-megawatt Bangladesh China Power Company in the southern port of Payra,and nearly two-thirds of them returned to China during the Chinese New Year in January.

Project manager Abdul Moula said: "Our plan is to start full-scale operation by next month. But if at least 300 Chinese workers don't come back by this month ... power production could be delayed."

At the US$3.5 billion Padma Multipurpose Bridge being built by state-owned China Major Railway Bridge Company, nearly a third of the 980 Chinese workers have yet to return, said project manager Dewan Abdul Kader.

On Indonesia's Sumatra island, work at the China-backed Batang Toru hydropower plant has ground to a halt due to a lack of Chinese workers, after Indonesia halted all flights to and from mainland China.

Construction of the US$6 billion Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project will also be delayed, said Indonesia's investment affairs minister Luhut Pandjaitan.

In Nepal - home to more than a dozen Chinese-backed hydropower projects - many Chinese workers who left for the Chinese New Year holiday have also not returned.

Vishnu Bahadur Singh of the Nepal Hydropower Association said: "In their absence, projects are being delayed or slowed down. Many of them are in specialised work, and it is not easy to replace them locally."

The setback from the virus comes after a pushback against Belt and Road projects in several countries including Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia, where contracts were renegotiated to cut costs or ensure better environmental compliance.

But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week played down fears that prolonged disruption from the virus could slow work on China-backed investments in Asia, saying it "will not have any negative impact". AFP