Coronavirus stalls major projects in Sri Lanka

Major construction projects have stalled in Sri Lanka as Chinese workers remain in their home country amid the coronavirus outbreak, or stay in accommodation in Sri Lanka for fear of discrimination.

Sri Lankan workers are also refusing to show up for work for fear of catching the disease from their Chinese counterparts, the secretary general of the country’s Chamber of Construction, Nissanka N. Wijeratne, told Sri Lankan business journal, DailyFT. 

"Lankan workers are reluctant to return over fears that they may fall ill while the Chinese workers fear discrimination," Wijeratne said.

Chinese companies are active in the island nation building infrastructure. The flagship project is the multi-billion dollar Port City Colombo scheme being developed by China Harbour Engineering Company. Intended to be a new business district for the capital, this will see 5.6 million sq m of commercial and residential space built on 269 hectares of reclaimed land.

Reclamation was declared complete in December, with plans now afoot to build the first office tower, the Colombo International Financial Centre (CIFC) complex.

Last week the Chamber met Chinese Embassy officials, urging them to calm sentiment and help Chinese workers who went home for the New Year holiday return.

"We urged the Chinese Embassy to ensure that they return soon as their absence is having a big impact on project progress," he told the newspaper.

According to official figures there had been around 15,000 Chinese construction workers in Sri Lanka before the outbreak, but unofficial estimates are much higher at close to 100,000.

They work for Chinese firms, but Sri Lankan firms also prize them for their productivity, even though they can command higher wages than locals.

"We have offered many incentives to local youth to join the construction industry, but the response has been very poor," Wijeratne said.

The number of confirmed cases has risen steeply, from 547 on 22 January to just under 40,000 yesterday, but today saw the first levelling off of new cases with the tally in mainland China rising only to 40,200.

All but 378 confirmed cases globally are in China.

Sri Lanka has only one confirmed case, although last week scientists from Harvard warned that the number of cases in other countries could be underestimated based on their analysis of flights out of Wuhan before travel restrictions took hold. 

"We have had one patient suffering from coronavirus and the health authorities have taken many precautions to stop it from spreading. There should be no unnecessary fear," Wijeratne said.

Image: Land reclamation underway for Port City Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2015 (Rehman Abubakr/CC BY-SA 4.0)

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