- Mongolia, which shares a border with China, has recorded just over 300 cases of the coronavirus and zero deaths.
- Some Mongolians believe this success is due to a traditional diet and way of life, or the fact that the country is one of the least densely populated in the world.
- But experts also credit the Mongolian government’s early and strict border closures.
- Although Mongolia contained the virus, its economy has been hit hard, and over 11,000 Mongolians still remain stranded abroad.
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In July, Mongolians marked the beginning of their short summer as they do every year — with the traditional Naadam festival. In colorful dress, men and women competitors tested their skill in Mongolia’s “three manly sports” — horseback riding, wrestling, and archery.
But for the first time in the festival’s 800-year history, there were no spectators, a health precaution during a global pandemic. In a normal year, the festival attracts thousands of visitors and vendors. This year, those attendees were invited to tune in to a livestream instead.
Still, there was reason to celebrate. Mongolia had already defeated the coronavirus. To date, not a single death and a little over 300 cases have been recorded — all of them imported, meaning zero community transmission.
It’s an astonishing feat for a country of about 3.3 million.
Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, so some amount of social distancing is a natural part of life. Livestock there outnumber human beings 22 to one.
But half the population live in the polluted capital, Ulaanbaatar, where a respiratory illness like COVID-19 should have thrived.
Some Mongolians say the success in containing the virus is a result of a traditional way of life, and an inner strength that dates back to 12th-century conqueror Genghis Khan.
“It all comes down to what we eat,” said Shaman Byambadorj, a traditional fortune teller who sees clients in his yurt at the back of an empty lot in Ulaanbaatar. Eating horse meat in winter and dairy products in the summer builds immunity, according to Mongolian tradition.
But what is more likely to have made the difference in Mongolia was an early and decisive response to the threat emerging in neighboring China.
As early as January 27, Mongolia closed its borders with China, only four days after Chinese authorities locked down Wuhan.
All schools were shut and mask wearing in public was made mandatory. A system of tracking and tracing was put into action with isolation wards at hospitals and quarantine facilities for all Mongolians returning from abroad.
By the time the country recorded its first case on March 10, and as the WHO declared a global pandemic, Mongolia was already shut off from the world. Early intervention had worked.
“I think one of the reasons that Mongolia contained the virus so well is because Mongolians truly understood how dire the impact of it could be for them,” said Aubrey Menard, author of Young Mongols, a book detailing the country’s youth-led democracy movement in the 1990s.
Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world, but over half the population live in gers — tent-like dwellings that can be packed up and moved to accommodate Mongolians’ traditional nomadic lifestyle. In winter, temperatures can dip below 40 degrees Celsius.
To keep warm, ger dwellers burn unrefined coal or household waste. That makes Ulaanbaatar’s winter air some of the worst in the world.
“And so a respiratory infection like the coronavirus would be absolutely devastating to Mongolia, which is the country that doesn’t have the hospital capacity, the respirator capacity to handle something like that,” said Menard.
But the virus containment measures have had their own knock-on effects.
“We have to commend the government for successfully preventing any community spreads of the coronavirus in Mongolia, but I think that came at a great cost, a great sacrifice to the people of Mongolia,” said Munkhdul Badral, a representative of Mongolians Abroad NGO.
Among those hard hit by Mongolia’s early self-isolation were the thousands of its citizens working abroad. In February, as COVID-19 started spreading around the world, they were given only seven days to return home.
Amarbold Narmandakh and members of his family were left stranded in South Korea. With no work, his family ran out of money to pay rent. And with nowhere else to go, they joined dozens of other expats sleeping outside the Mongolian embassy.
When they finally returned to Mongolia in late July, they were quarantined in basic accommodation blocks for 21 days — at their own expense.
He shared images of dirty bunk beds and brown water flowing from the bathroom sink on his social media.
“It feels as though almost like a sophisticated prison,” he said. “You can’t go anywhere, and you have all of your movements monitored, and can’t even open a window.”
Frustrated Mongolians stuck abroad organized protests outside their embassies in the United States, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Malaysia, and South Korea.
As public pressure mounted, the government stepped up repatriations. As of September, about 23,000 Mongolians have returned home, leaving just under 11,000 stranded in 55 different countries.
The government has defended their efforts to bring Mongolians home.
“There are few naysayers who are using the misfortune of Mongolians who are stuck abroad to gin up their notoriety and acting as if they are the only ones who are concerned. They are traitors,” said Nyamkhuu Dulmaa, the head of the national communicable disease center, and face of Mongolia’s coronavirus response effort.
And border closures have impacted Mongolia’s export-heavy economy. Nearly 90% of all exported goods go to China.
“Mongolia has a limited ability to cope with economic shocks because of the state that it’s in right now,” said Menard. “So the coronavirus, once again, highlighted that vulnerability when Mongolia had to shut that border with China, its economy went into free fall.”
In the first six months of this year, Mongolia’s GDP shrunk by nearly 10%, according to UN News.
The cashmere industry, which employs around 10,000 people, relies on foreign demand for luxury goods. It’s the country’s second largest export after coal and minerals.
Barkhasbadi Boldbaatar, executive director of Sor Cashmere LLC, is worried about his business if the borders remain closed.
“Basically, domestic sales are nonexistent now and we are only taking a few international requests. Currently we are operating at 40% to fulfill some knitting and fiber-refining requests,” said Boldbaatar.
About a third of Mongolians live in poverty, earning less than $2 per day. But living standards have increased, especially among rural herders, according to The Borgen Project.
The current economic contraction threatens to erase that progress and send nearly half of the country below the poverty line.
In order to finance COVID relief efforts, the Mongolian government has borrowed nearly half a billion dollars from organizations like the IMF, Asian Development Bank, and the private sector. Some are worried about how that money is being spent.
“Where did that money go? If you’re going to spend it for your own people and international organizations are giving you money to spend it for COVID-19 and where is that money going?” said Mogi Baatar, founder of SHAPE Mongolia, a non-profit.
Breathe Mongolia, a nonprofit that normally tracks air pollution, has also launched an investigation into the government’s appropriation of funds.
As fall arrives, Mongolia’s coronavirus lockdown is easing. Students are in the classroom, but only three days per week.
Until borders reopen, and schools can operate full time, this recovery will be limited.
“A lot of single moms can’t go back to work because they have kids. And they have no one to look after their kids. So it is sort of this, they are falling back on the cycle of poverty,” said Tim Jenkins, country director for People in Need, a charity organization.
Throughout their long history, Mongolian people have survived harsh weather conditions, wars, and political upheaval.
“It is a very collective culture,” said Baatar. “If they combine their forces together to overcome something, Mongolians can do that.
For Shaman Byambadorj and his followers, the virus delivers a humbling reminder for Mongolians who have forgotten the ancient way of life.
“This disease is the wrath of nature and we have ravaged nature and disregarded the land we live,” said Byambadorj. “Keep Mother Nature pure. This disease came about by not adhering to that. If you sustain Mother Nature as is, you have nothing to fear of the disease.”