Egypt's construction workers return to sites in balancing act between deadly virus and tanking economy

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Construction work has resumed on Egypt’s mega projects as the country attempts to achieve balance between protecting its people from an outbreak of the coronavirus and keeping economy afloat.

The outbreak has to date infected more than 1,000 people and killed at least 71 in Egypt.

The decision to resume work in the construction sector, which employs an estimated 4 million people, came after the country’s business and industrial tycoons piled pressure on the government to ease measures introduced to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. One businessman went as far as to question the principle of saving lives at the expense of the economy.

The government is facing the difficult task of balancing the need to prevent the economy from tanking while keeping the number of coronavirus-related infections and deaths among the country’s 100 million residents to a minimum.

It has introduced a stimulus package to prevent a recession which included lowering interest rates by a staggering 300 points, suspending taxes on stock market transactions and bailing out struggling exporters. It also increased unemployment benefits for informal workers and added thousands of new households to the beneficiaries of a cash assistance program for the poor.

At stake are the hard-won gains made by Egypt following a harsh austerity programme that began in 2016 and hit the poor and middle-class the hardest. As part of the programme, the value of the local currency to the dollar was slashed by half, value added tax was introduced and state subsidies on fuel and utilities such as water and electricity were removed.

Workers returned to sites in the new desert capital outside Cairo and a new city on the coast of the Mediterranean this week.

Municipality workers spray disinfectant as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus at the Kuwait salmiya market, following the outbreak of coronavirus, in Kuwait. EPA

Children hold olive branches as they look out from the sunroof of a car to be blessed by priests roaming around neighbourhoods to celebrate Palm Sunday, amid the lockdown to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Marjayoun, southern Lebanon. Reuters

An empty Greek Catholic Church during a mass on Palm Sunday in Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

Members of the Kurdish Red Crescent check passengers who were stranded in Damascus upon their arrival at the Qamishli airport in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province. AFP

Coptic girls reacting while watching hymns performed on telelvision at home at Shubra Al Khema district in Cairo, Egypt. EPA

Iraqi priests celebrate the Palm Sunday mass at the empty Saint Joseph church in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. AFP

A Palestinian man, who was quarantined, talks on his phone on a hotel window in Gaza City. EPA

Palestinian security policemen wearing protective gear, patrol on the street of Gaza City. EPA

A street vendor wearing protective face mask stands on a street between lines of cars during a sandstorm in Cairo, Egypt. EPA

Members of the Kurdish Red Crescent check passengers who were stranded in Damascus upon their arrival at the Qamishli airport in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province. AFP

A view of an empty street during coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Tunis, Tunisia. EPA

A view of an empty street during coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Tunis, Tunisia. EPA

A statue representing the Virgin Mary and Jesus is seen in front of the closed St Maroun Maronite Catholic Church during a mass on Palm Sunday in downtown Beirut, Lebanon. EPA

Municipality workers spray disinfectant as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus at the Kuwait salmiya market, following the outbreak of coronavirus, in Kuwait. EPA

Afghan health workers spray disinfectants at public places in Helmand, Afghanistan. EPA

A presidential statement on Saturday said Mr El Sisi has ordered the “highest possible preventive measures” adopted at construction sites to prevent infections, complete with the enforcement of social distancing and providing health care.

Elaborating on the statement, Information Minister Osama Heikal later on Saturday told a television interviewer that older workers and those with pre-existing conditions would not be allowed to return to work given their vulnerability to contracting Covid-19.

“There is no contradiction,” he said when asked whether the government’s decision to allow construction to resume clashed with its appeals to people to stay home. “We need the cycle of the economy to run … if the economy comes to a halt, we will regress a great deal.”

The same point was emphatically made last week by Egypt’s best known businessman, billionaire Naguib Sawiris.

“If this goes on for too long, it’s possible the country will be bankrupt and we’ll have hunger, famine and chaos,” he wrote in a tweet that sparked a debate on social media networks. Some claimed Mr Sawiris was lacking the spirit of social corporate responsibility.

“People will die, but at least we won’t be bankrupt,” said construction tycoon Hussein Sabbour, in comments which drew ire from the public. When asked about the likely higher number of infections if employees returned to work, he said: “Let them increase, but what do we want, a populace that’s standing on its feet, albeit a smaller one, or a people who are totally penniless and cannot find food for the next day?”

But with or without the construction workers returning to building sites, the economy has already taken a blow from coronavirus, which causes the deadly disease known as Covid-19.

The tourism sector has been flattened during a year that had been expected to register the highest ever number of visitors. Revenues in 2020 had been expected to surpass last year’s $12.5 billion. The slump was expected to spill over into at least part of 2021 with tourism executives reporting significant drops in new bookings.

Remittances of the country’s expatriate workforce, primarily in the Gulf region, were also expected to be down this year after last year’s decent $26.4 billion. Moreover, global energy demand is weakening because of the coronavirus crisis just as Egypt was positioning itself as a major gas exporter and a regional energy hub.

Through all this, the government has been at pains not to be perceived as indifferent to the welfare of the workers it wants back on the job or oblivious to the impact of the anti-coronavirus measures on the millions of other workers eking out a life on meager daily wages in the services sector.

Just how badly business has been hit was recounted by an executive of a major motor vehicles business in Egypt.

“Normally, we have 90-120 potential buyers walking daily into our showrooms nationwide. Now we have between five and six, including perhaps one or two who wanted to enjoy our air conditioning,” he told The National, explaining that the government’s decision to close its vehicle registration department until mid-April meant that buying a new car has now become a meaningless task.

“If this goes on, we will consider laying off the least performing employees and renegotiate showroom rents with landlords.”

Updated: April 6, 2020 04:57 PM

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