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The mysterious case of recent COVID outbreak in Mongolia
On May 19th, 2021, the Mongolian website news.mn has announced that “Mongolia is second after Israel in vaccination rate”. These were, of course, exciting and very promising news for the country which have kept its borders sealed at large ever since February 2020.
Understanding its health services won’t be able to cope with a massive COVID outbreak, the Mongolian government have made tremendous efforts to keep the violent and highly infectious virus out of its territory.
Borders were shut, school closed, restaurants, cafes, movie theaters and most shops have locked their doors. And indeed, while most of the world have seen a daily surge in new COVID cases which led to lockdowns and massive restrictions, the life in Mongolia seemed as there was no COVID-19 in the world. People walked the streets; restaurants, cafes, and shops gradually opened, and other than the masks that were now widely worn, and the schools that were kept closed, life continued as normal. That is, if you were in Mongolia. However, tens of thousands of Mongolian citizens, as well as foreign residents were stranded away from home. The cry for help of Mongolians gathering in front Mongolian embassies worldwide, appealing to the government to help them return back home, were nothing short of heart breaking.
The Mongolian government have responded swiftly, organizing repatriation flights followed by a five-weeks’ quarantine in government-designated facilities before those repatriated could re-unite with their loved ones.
Travelers were totally banned from arriving in Mongolia, and thus, the entire travel season of 2020 was gone for anyone involved with the travel business.
Other than these, it all went well until mid-November 2020. Heavily relying on imports, Mongolian trucks were crossing the borders to China and Russia, getting food supplies, and driving back in. On the way back, at the border, the drivers that went out of the country and into Russia and China, both were then heavily affected by COVID, would leave their trucks, go into quarantine, and another truck driver would then drive the truck to Ulaanbaatar.
We can only assume that after months of such routine, the truck drivers, and the staff at the quarantine facilities did let down their guard. After all, for months the virus was kept out – they must have been doing something right. With the level of alert slowly dropping, as might have been the case, the drivers, which were supposed to be isolated in their rooms, might have sneaked into common areas for a chat, a game of cards, or other social activities.
We do not know for sure, but probably at one of these gatherings, a driver that just came in from Russia, carrying the virus, joined a game of cards with few drivers that were tested negative and were about to finish their five-weeks’ quarantine and go back home. One of these have contracted the virus before leaving the facility. The next day he went on a concert with a crowd of hundreds. And the rest is history… The country that withstood the COVID pandemic for nine months became part of the statistics.
For the first few months it seemed as if the government managed to keep the situation under control. Strict lockdowns were imposed for weeks at a time, and the daily new cases were at a very low rate. Last April and May the government have brought vaccinations, mostly of Chinese manufacturers, and in a swift campaign vaccinated most of Ulaanbaatar’s citizens. The numbers of newly infected that reached some 1,300 per day, were now reduced to around 600 new cases a day.
When the vaccination campaign begun back in April, the prime minister has announced that by May the authorities shall partially open the borders, and from July fully open it, so travelers could come and enjoy the country’s unique landscapes, history and culture. However, May came, and the government halted its plans. They have announced the May plans shall be delayed until June, without any definite dates declared. A feeling of uncertainty has now prevailed the streets.
In recent days, despite the fact that 80 percent of the country’s adults are properly vaccinated, and maybe due to it, the new cases’ numbers are surging again, and in fact, breaking the old records. In the time of writing this article, we are at well over 2,300 new cases a day.
So why, despite the successful vaccination campaign, the numbers are on the rise? First and foremost, about 30 percent of the new cases are children and youth below 18 years old, who are not vaccinated. Second, the statistics are somewhat deceiving. With the majority of the country’s citizens residing in Ulaanbaatar, and 80 percent of the population vaccinated, it means that more than 1/3 of the adult population in the countryside has not yet been vaccinated. Third- the statistics include those who have been fully vaccinated and got infected. We know the Chinese vaccination, which is the one that has been widely administrated throughout the country, has a relatively low efficiency in preventing the disease, comparing at least when comparing to Pfizer and Moderna. However, it is widely accepted that those who got vaccinated by the Chinese vaccine, and contracted the disease, suffer very mild, if any symptoms, and are in a very low risk of any complications beyond the symptoms most people would experience through a common flu. Therefore, including these at the same statistics as those who are not vaccinated is somewhat misleading and does not reflect on the severity of the situation.
At the time being, the public is somewhat confused. The school summer break has begun, a much-needed break for the students that have spent most of the last two school years looking at their screen in remote learning. The entire travel industry is not clear on whether tourists would be allowed in the country, or will they have to go through a second year of no income. Due to ongoing concern within the country, provinces, towns, and village administrations are imposing strict travel bans, and the general public, that extensively explored the country last summer for the lack of alternative of traveling abroad, is not clear on whether it is allowed to travel within the country.
Though far from international attention, Mongolia is an interesting study case of pandemic-management. Surrounded by two of the first countries to have major outbreaks, a swift and decisive action of the Mongolian government, together with the culturally-embedded obedience of the Mongolian public, eventuated in the country being COVID free for some 9 months. Once first cases were discovered, another decisive, swift and strict actions were imposed to prevent wide spread of the highly infectious disease. It seems as if the rapid increase in new cases that are seen since March 2021 are much due to the June 9th presidential elections that have led public leaders to ease the restrictions in favor of populist actions and decisions for which the entire population is now paying a price.
The Mongolian government is now facing two challenges: fully opening its international borders, and the beginning of the next school year. Only bold, effective, dedicated and determined government could lead Mongolia out of this crisis, and restore social, financial, cultural and educational order to this otherwise peaceful land. We shall have to see if the newly elected president, and his prime minister, both belong to the same party, could lead Mongolia out of this crisis and restore the confidence of Mongolian people in their leaders.
An attractive destination for those looking for a unique combination of primordial landscapes and nomadic culture, almost vanished elsewhere in the world, Mongolia has held on to the old ways whilst sampling the new.View tours