Mongolia, a nation bordered by China and Russia, does not usually attract much public attention. Its success so far in containing COVID-19, however, is well worth considering.
Any of several factors could make Mongolia highly vulnerable to COVID-19: its weak healthcare system, its proximity to China, the first epicenter of the coronavirus, and its close ties to South Korea, which experienced one of the largest initial outbreaks of COVID-19 outside China and which is home to a relatively large population of Mongolian migrant workers. Yet Mongolia’s strategy in fighting the pandemic seems to have worked well thus far for its 3.2 million people.
In the following post, Dr. Gendengarjaa Baigalimaa, a gynecological oncologist at the Mungun Guur Hospital in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, discusses the country’s response to the pandemic and its implications. Baigalimaa was a 2013-14 postdoctoral fellow on developing Asia health policy with APARC’s Asia Health Policy Program.
This is the second installment in our series, “Stories in a Time of Pandemic,” in which APARC alumni across Asia share their perspectives on the responses to and implications of COVID-19 in their communities. You can read the first part in the series, featuring reflections by several former Global Affiliates Program Fellows.
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As of May 17, 2020, the number of new coronavirus infections in Mongolia has reached 136. All of them are imported cases, including four foreigners and 132 Mongolians who came from abroad. They have been treated by the National Center for Communicable Diseases and some have been discharged as totally recovered. Most notably, there have been no reports of community transmission.
Following the World Health Organization's recommendation of January 22 that countries begin considering containment measures, Mongolia immediately activated its inter-agency State Emergency Commission in support of the Ministry of Health as a lead agency in the response against the coronavirus outbreak. The Mongolian government made an unprecedented decision to close all schools and kindergartens starting January 25. All classes are now being conducting via TV and the internet.
Already in mid-February, with the pandemic's spreading in China, the Mongolian government’s strategy was to adopt decisive preventative measures, including the cancelation of the national holiday Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian lunar new year, and closure of all travel between Ulaanbaatar and provinces outside the capital. Mongolia also closed its borders with China and Russia, stopping the inflow and outflow of people, and banned international flights from all airlines. The government has been mobilizing its citizens to return home from countries like South Korea, Japan, Turkey, and Russia. Those arriving are quarantined for an extended 21-day period, with multiple coronavirus screenings.
The use of masks, especially from early November, when flu season starts and air pollution worsens, is already familiar to Mongolians. This season, the government has enforced mask-wearing in public places. In the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, the requirement that all employees at government offices, banks, shops, and markets wear masks was imposed as early as January 25. The State Emergency Commission would issue fines of 150,000₮ (54 USD) for violating the order. At the same time, health professionals and community leaders conveyed the importance of mask-wearing and handwashing and worked to increase sanitation at all public places.
These steps have helped immensely to contain the spread of COVID-19. They have also had the added benefit of sharply reducing the number of flu infections. At the start of the flu season last year, almost 12.7 percent of all hospital visits were flu-related, compared to 1.8 percent this year. Another unexpected benefit was the drop in gastrointestinal infections among children. Children were staying home and washing their hands properly. As a result, there have been no cases of gastrointestinal infections registered this year so far.
“Not only did Mongolia close its borders early and move promptly, but also did a great job at quarantining evacuees from overseas immediately upon arrival and taking safety measures,” said Mr. Sergey Diorditsa, the WHO representative to Mongolia. He praised the country’s economic stimulus measures and noted that prolonged restrictions may adversely affect its social and economic sectors and that WHO Mongolia is conducting a study on the in-country impacts of COVID-19. Indeed, data provided by the National Statistical Office shows that the country’s economy is expected to decline sharply due to the adverse effects of the pandemic.
Mongolia’s urgent response to COVID-19 offers lessons for vulnerable communities on containment of the coronavirus and prevention of its spread. The country is also a relevant case study for the economic repercussions of the pandemic.