As of this writing, there are no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, in Mongolia. But given the shared border with China and local government actions, it’s having quite an impact here. This travel post is a quick overview of the current situation in Mongolia in the emergence of the neighboring pandemic.
No Officially Confirmed Cases, But Many in Quarantine
Even with no officially confirmed cases here, it’s quite possible there are infected persons currently in quarantine. There are hundreds currently under quarantine, almost all of them Mongolians brought back from China on special flights and buses. The earliest ones that were flown in from Wuhan were recently cleared from their 2-week quarantine, but many others remain under quarantine. In fact the news recently mentioned three buses had just brought in 104 Mongolians who were stuck in China’s Inner Mongolia province, and after medical examinations one of the passengers is suspected of having COVID-19. I personally suspect some of these cases ARE confirmed with testing, but the Mongolian government doesn’t want it getting out yet for fear of border closures with Russia and further interruption in trade.
Speaking of word getting out, last week there was a report of one suspected infection in Khuvsgul province, and a couple days later someone on Facebook claiming personal knowledge of this made a post that this person died of COVID-19 and the person’s family was in quarantine. The government response was… interesting. They announced they were fining said person and some others two million Tugriks (~$750) for creating or spreading ‘fake news’, but said little else. While it’s certainly possible the information was false, the total lack of information being released and the way the government is avoiding any direct mention of the case is suspicious to say the least.
Border Closure and Obstacles in the Flow of Imports & Exports
One of the largest changes here is the Mongolian government’s decision to shut down all passenger air and land crossings from China, except for special buses and flights carrying Mongolians stuck in China into Mongolia (said passengers going straight into quarantine). They even stopped coal deliveries into China almost a week ago after some of the coal truck drivers were suspected of having symptoms. Given that Mongolia’s main export partner is China and coal is a big part of that, economically speaking it’s a big deal. For the time being goods are still being imported from and through China by railway. Most of Mongolia’s imports come from or through China, so if that stops then we will know things are real serious. As it is, with much of China’s industrial and agricultural base still shut down or operating at reduced levels we already see shortages of random things.
The most notable of these shortages I heard was with a certain chemical Mongolian companies use to make the processed coal briquettes that have been replacing raw coal for heating stoves. Apparently the chemical in question was being sourced from China, and that source was no longer available (the extended shutdown in production being implied as the cause). They’re currently trying to find alternate sources, but if they can’t then the city residents won’t have any choice but to (illegally) burn raw coal instead. The wintertime pollution in the capital has significantly improved since the switch from raw coal, but if the briquettes run out then the coal smoke pollution will come back with a vengeance. It’s a good example of how reliant the world is on international supply chains.
Closures of Schools, Universities, and Public Entertainment Venues
In daily life, probably the biggest change here is the closure of all schools, universities, and kindergartens. In addition, they’ve also closed certain public entertainment venues such as concerts, movie theaters, and video arcades. Initially the closure was to be for about one month and re-open on March 2nd, but recently they extended that to March 31st. As you can imagine, many children (including my own) are totally heartbroken about the schools closing… 😏
These may seem like extreme measures for a country that has no confirmed cases and has already shut down regular border crossings from China, but there are two factors at play that justifies it. The first is Mongolia’s medical care infrastructure is under-prepared for an epidemic. To be fair ALL nations are under-prepared for major pandemics, but on the spectrum of preparedness Mongolia has less resources than most developed nations. The second is that Mongolians (and their government) have ZERO trust in China’s government, and assume things are much worse than they’re letting on. It pains me to say nice things about ANY government, but I gotta say Mongolia’s government in this case is being remarkably forward-thinking and proactive in the face of the potential economic & social backlash. What can I say, I hate government but I still have to give credit where credit is due.
Public Sentiment in Mongolia
As for the public sentiment on the neighboring outbreak, I’d say it’s best described as ‘concerned and cautious’ along with ‘wait and see’. The COVID-19 outbreak is taking up a large section of the TV news each night, and the reporters are even wearing masks as they report the news (I assume it’s more for the sake of promoting the wearing of masks than protecting themselves). But aside from that, more people wearing masks in public, and the closure of the schools, it’s not a whole lot different from before. People are still going to work, still going shopping (though maybe with more emphasis on stocking up on essentials), and still going about their lives. It has required adjustments, like with going out a little less and having kids staying at home watching televised classes instead of being at school. But life is still going on and I’m not seeing any overwhelming mood of fear. Heck, just last week we took the kids and their cousins sledding and they had a blast!
Be Cautious, But Don’t Live in Fear
My own take on COVID-19 is that it’s worth taking very seriously (certainly more so than those likening this to just a bad seasonal flu) and it will likely bring on a lot of pain, but it won’t be the end of the world. Take some practical precautions like using face masks, washing one’s hands diligently, and saving money to prepare for potential extended absences from work. But it’s no reason to live in fear… life without fun is no life at all!