Artist: Ts Orgil.
Mongolia’s Measures against COVID-19
Itgel Chuluunbaatar & Li Narangoa
With the outbreak of COVID-19, as a country Mongolia was expected to have a high number of cases given its proximity with China and a vulnerable health care system. Despite all the odds, the Mongolian government has managed the COVID-19 well with timely management and strict rules. Unlike other countries, Mongolia took immediate measures to prevent and combat the COVID-19 outbreak, well before the first case was confirmed. Mongolia became the second country in the world to close its border to travellers from China, starting on the 25th of January 2020.
The experience of combating the SARS epidemic in 2003 and 2009 was still fresh in the minds of Mongolians and this gave the government the confidence to act decisively. Previously, when SARS cases crossed the southern border from China, Mongolia immediately closed the borders and put in place social distancing measures. Some observers commented then that Mongolia was overreacting but it turned out Mongolia’s stringent measures paid off and within days Mongolia was able to contain the spread with only one internal transmission, while other Asian countries struggled for much longer to tame the spread of the SARS virus.
With the coronavirus, social distancing was introduced long before the first case was confirmed. All kindergartens, schools and universities were closed from the end of January and studies were changed to online modules. Special television programmes were released, dedicated for secondary school students and students were required to submit their homework through social networking platforms. So far 480 online courses and 206 textbooks have been uploaded to a dedicated website (www.econtent.edu.mn). Currently, school and university closures will continue until the 30th of April 2020 with the possibility of extension if the situation does not improve.
In February, the Mongolian president, Khaltmaa Battulga, issued a decree not to publically celebrate the biggest holiday in Mongolia, the Mongolian Lunar New Year, Tsagaan Sar. The president asked people to celebrate at home and meet friends online instead of visiting each other to avoid any possible transmission. The government closed down all roads between cities and provinces to limit movement during the festive season.
Despite discouraging his citizens from gathering, the President visited China on the 27th of February to show Mongolia’s solidarity with the Chinese government and its people in this difficult time. He was the first Head of State to visit China after the outbreak and donated 30,000 sheep. The Mongolian press observed the visit as a brave and smart diplomatic and humanitarian move. The delegation quarantined themselves for 14 days upon returning.
Thanks to the immediate measures taken, Mongolia has only 15 cases confirmed out of 4048 tests as of the 6th of April, including two successfully recovered patients. Currently 2272 people are under observation in quarantine. All 15 cases were from overseas.
The first case was confirmed on the 10th of March through a French citizen, who works in Mongolia, returning from a holiday in France. He stirred up controversy, as he did not follow the rule of self-quarantine for 14 days. He travelled in a train and visited a mine to conduct training. As a result, 120 contacts were quarantined as an immediate measure to prevent potential spread of the virus and over 500 indirect contacts were placed under medical observation. Fortunately, all of them tested negative. Mongolian citizens were shocked by the Frenchman’s irresponsible behaviour and demanded the government take stricter measures on foreign citizens entering Mongolia. Mongolia subsequently closed flights between European nations after this first confirmed case. The company responsible for the Frenchman donated 1 billion MNT (AUD600,000) to support the government’s endeavours in the fight against the spread of the disease.
Eleven out of 14 other cases were from Mongolians returning from abroad, via the government’s chartered flights and as a result of testing positive upon arrival. Over 6000 Mongolians have submitted requests for chartered flights when the virus spread globally. Due to limited quarantine space, Mongolia is delaying future chartered flights.
The Mongolian Ministry of Health has made daily announcements at 11am on COVID-19 related issues but also send text messages to mobile users several times daily to remind the public of the importance of social distancing, washing their hands and wearing masks. This has resulted in almost everyone in the street wearing face masks, while strolling through Ulaanbaatar. The shops and stores are well stocked. People do not seem to be hoarding supplies nor have there been battles for toilet paper. The Mongolian Prime Minister assured citizen’s that there is enough meat and other supplies in the national reserve until the end of this year.
Mongolia’s effective control of the outbreak of the coronavirus is partly because it acted in a timely manner, but also because Mongolia is used to acting upon the spread of animal disease outbreaks, such as foot and mouth, whereby the most recent occurrence was a couple of years ago in western provinces. Restriction of movement of human and animals takes place as soon as these kinds of zoonotic outbreaks occur.
Since 2018, Mongolia has been using a Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) system to track the mobility of people in all administrative areas outside Ulaanbaatar to improve the preparedness for natural disasters. The DTM technology has also been used to manage COVID-19 by monitoring peoples’ movements to and from the capital of Ulaanbaatar. Over 400 health and educational personnel were placed at six major checkpoints across the city to collect data on aspects such as people’s length of stay in their point of origin and destination, as Ulaanbaatar is the political and economic hub of Mongolia and presents a potential major source of the virus to the rest of the country.
Like the rest of the world, Mongolia is expected to have serious economic decline in the coming year due to slowing global trade and limited domestic business. To minimise the economic and social impacts of the virus, the government has announced special measures, cancelling individual income taxes and social insurance payments from employees and employers for six months from the 1st of April 2020. All legal entities with less than MNT1.2 billion annual income are also given these tax exemptions. The government announced an additional MNT10,000 for each Mongolian child per month. Despite these measures, with large international bond payments due in the coming years, the Mongolian government will face huge challenges to handle the longer-term economic impacts of the virus.