Belt and Road projects fight winter virus spike as workers remain at posts
Safety and caution come first as workers remain at posts
Published: Feb 01, 2021 06:13 PM

Workers assist two cement pumps to inject cement into the base of a power plant in Algeria on Jan 25. Photo: Courtesy of CRCC

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese engineers and project managers working on the many overseas projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are planning to spend this year's Chinese Lunar New Year at project sites around the globe, giving up what is a major holiday and opportunity for family reunion, to ensure project progress and alleviate burden of domestic epidemic control efforts at home.

The development came as global confirmed cases for the coronavirus have topped the 100 million mark and sporadic outbreaks hit multiple Chinese localities during the winter months. 

Observers following the development of the BRI said their sacrifice of the family reunion could alleviate the pressure on domestic epidemic control efforts and add valuable time for the projects to get ahead of schedule.  

As they think about their family members and feel homesick, they look forward new, easier way of testing for COVID-19 that could help support the epidemic control efforts at their work sites, the Global Times learned.

Closed-loop management

Amid rising infection cases around the world in winter, keeping everyone safe from the virus has become a priority. To such end, the most stringent epidemic control efforts are applied at overseas work sites run by Chinese companies whenever possible.

A manager with an energy project in Africa surnamed Wang said that epidemic control efforts at the project site he works rely on closed-loop management. This means only those granted COVID-19 negative certificates and served a 14-day quarantine term could work inside the cordoned-off zone.

Chinese engineers and managers who returned following the domestic outbreak being brought under control in early 2020 are mostly vaccinated against the virus with domestically developed vaccines. 

For local workers hired on site, closed-loop management protocols are also strictly enforced.

Adjusting to local conditions

Of course, closed-loop management can only be applied to a restricted number of businesses, and for a large number of projects more practical and locally suitable measures are adopted to ward off the virus. This is especially the case for infrastructure project which is often carried out in open space and with large teams.

A railway construction project manager that works on a transportation project in Southeast Asia, surnamed Li, said the local epidemic control follows local government requirements.

"At the project site, which is far away from cities, we don't require Chinese and local workers who have never left the site to undertake nucleic acid tests - they are deemed safe," Li told the Global Times. 

For those newcomers joining our projects or those who have travel experience, they need to undergo tests to get a greenlights first, Li said, adding that there are many local hospitals capable of offering such tests. 

Li said the project he oversaw has improved after a period of uncertainty. 

"Last year, I did not come home for the Spring Festival holidays. This year would be the same," Li said. "I don't want to add trouble to those at home fighting to contain the virus."

Li's voluntary choice is reflective of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese engineers and project managers who have chosen to spend this year's Spring Festival holidays at their project sites. That includes many who haven't been back to China for over 900 days. 

China has seen spike of infection cases as winter descends, with outbreaks reported in Dalian, Northeast China's Liaoning Province, and Shijiazhuang, in North China's Hebei Province and Beijing. This has prompted the government to call for a "stay in place" policy for Lunar New Year in China.

Chinese experts said staying at the project sites helps fight the virus and ensures the progress of the projects. 

"Less moving around is in itself a contribution to combating the epidemic," said Liu Ying, research fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

"It helps alleviate the pressure of medical personnel in China and the countries they will be traveling through," Liu said.

And ensuring the progress of BRI projects is to ensure the growth of local and regional economy, Liu said. "Their sacrifice means a lot as part of the global fight on the virus."

A number of Chinese companies with overseas projects contracts have confirmed with the Global Times that they have told their employees to stay put abroad to ensure project progress.

Glimmer of hope

Wang, who works in Africa, said it is still needed to have on-site test capacity even as many of the employees are vaccinated. It is hard to get by at their sites at the moment. 

"In our remote areas, any test has to be done usually by traveling to a nearby city," Wang said. "Given the serious pandemic situation, leaving the closed-off zone for a COVID-19 nucleic acid test itself is risky."

Wang said this is the reason that they are happy after learning over the weekend on a new testing method that can be performed by non-medical professionals.

Back in China, developers of antigen and antibody detection products, including Guangzhou-based coronavirus test kit maker Wondfo Biotech Co, are pinning on hopes of antibody tests, which can also be conducted by an individual rather than by professional medical organizations and thus making it possible for such test kits to be delivered to remote areas for testing. 

Say goodbye to celebrating the Spring Festival family reunion in home country amplifies homesickness for those working on overseas projects, especially for many who haven't returned home for years.

To ease a certain psychological tension among employees staying put abroad, China Railway Construction Corp, one of world's largest railway construction contractors, turned to online psychological courses to offer consultations to those in need. 

Some 900 rounds of consultations have been completed as of January and over 600 went through psychological testing, the company said in a statement sent to the Global Times on Monday.