Sheer disappointment grips Atiqur Rahman, manager of Selim Traders at Tanbazar in Brahmanbaria, when he thinks about his business of rod and cement: the sales have dropped to a half of what it used to be.
Moreover, he has not yet received the bills for products sold before Covid-19 outbreak, which means they cannot repay the bank loans even though the interest has to be paid.
Their business depends much on construction activities undertaken by people whose expatriate relatives send home remittances.
But, these businesses have faced this calamitous change since the pandemic brought economies across the world to a halt.
The December-March period is when the sales of rod and cement pick up in the expatriate-inhabited district Brahmanbaria as most of them return home and build houses during these four months.
But, the Covid-19 crisis has affected the income of expatriates this year. As a result, construction work in the district has almost stopped, compared to other times.
Those who started building houses before the pandemic have also stopped their work, hitting the local rod-cement business hard.
The situation is the same in other districts such as Noakhali and Moulvibazar. Traders say sales have halved compared to those of normal times. Moreover, since most of the sales were on credit, many who bought products last year are also not paying their arrears.
There are more than 200 rod-cement shops in Brahmanbaria. Of these, more than 100 shops are in the district town alone. Large stores sell an average of 500 tonnes of rods and 5,000 bags of cement per month during the season whereas 50-100 tonnes of rod and 3,000-4,000 bags of cement are sold in small shops.
Some businessmen said many expatriates have returned to the country after losing their jobs abroad and most of them are unemployed now.
Salah Uddin Bhuiyan, proprietor of Al-Medina Trading in Brahmanbaria, said, "Before the outbreak of Covid-19, I sold rod-cement worth Tk15-20 lakh per month. Now it is difficult to sell goods worth Tk2.5 lakh a month.
"People do not have money, so the construction of houses has stopped. The capital crisis has arisen due to the closure of trade for a long time. We will benefit if we get bank loans on easy terms," he added.
At the same time, due to the recession in the rod-cement business, the workers involved in the sector have no income. Even though the shops are open now, the workers do not have work like before and have a lot of free time.
Bachchu Mia, a van driver from Tanbazar area of Brahmanbaria town, said he has been transporting rod-cement to various shops in the market for 10 years. Before the outbreak of Covid-19, four or five vans used to transport rod-cement a day. Now there is no demand for even one van on a daily basis.
He also said the owner did not cooperate with the workers during the crisis period.
Azizul Haque, president of the Brahmanbaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said they have not yet calculated the number of losses to the business. The amount of loss will be determined by talking to the affected traders.
'The bank authorities are not implementing the interest waiver on bank loans of Covid-19-affected traders declared by the government. Except for a few banks, the rest are not accepting loans at a four percent interest. We are talking to all the banks in coordination with the district administration so that the affected traders get loans at four percent interest," he added.
Iqbal Hossain Bhuiyan, president of Brahmanbaria Bankers Forum and manager of Brahmanbaria Head Branch of Sonali Bank Limited, said, "The government has identified some sectors for providing incentives loans at the rate of four percent. If the affected traders want, we will give loans. And if a trader, who is affected by Covid-19, comes and talks about the loss, his interest will be waived, but no one has come to us yet."
Housing construction in Moulvibazar halved
Kaiser Ahmed of Shahbandar area of Sadar upazila of the district wanted to build a house this year, but because of Covid-19, his French expatriate brother became unemployed and returned.
Moulvibazar Municipality executive engineer Syed Nakibur Rahman said the construction of houses and markets in the municipality has decreased by 60 percent this year, compared to last year.
Humaid Ali, director of Zine Hardware, a local rod-cement trader, said products worth Tk8-10 lakh were sold last year, which is Tk3 lakh now at best.
Housing construction has decreased in Noakhali
In Noakhali district, construction of new houses has almost stopped due to reduction of income of expatriates in Covid-19 situation.
According to the District Expatriate Welfare Branch and the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training, many expatriates from Noakhali have returned to the country in the global Covid-19 situation. Many are unable to return to work after returning to the country. Even those who are abroad at this time are not able to send money home as before.
Mosleh Uddin Sohel, the proprietor of Desh Bangla in Maijdi, said the construction of houses has almost stopped. Just some government roads and pool-culverts are being built.
Addan Hossain, director of Rahman Tedders, a construction materials seller in Sonapur Bazar in Sadar upazila, said there were no new buyers in the area; where at least five to seven expatriates used to buy construction materials worth crores of taka every month.
Fakhrul Islam, assistant manager of rod maker RSM Rod's Noakhali region, said sales have dropped by 25 percent since March as there is no construction of houses at present, and just some old construction work is going on.
Our correspondents in Moulvibazar and Noakhali contributed to this report.