Mongolia: How a Small, Landlocked Country Dealt With the Pandemic

Antonio Graceffo

 

“The policy of the government of Mongolia is now very clear. We have been through a lot of hard times, and we don’t want to go through that again. And if this virus continues, we have to face it. We have to step forward, not backward. We have to reduce the risk of death and reduce the risk of health sector pressure.” Amarsaikhan Sainbuyan, Deputy Prime Minister of Mongolia

 

When the coronavirus was first discovered in China in January 2020, Mongolia was one of the first countries to lock down, closing schools and businesses, and canceling public events. On January 31, the border with China was closed, and trade ground to a halt. As a landlocked nation, situated between Russia and China, Mongolia is dependent on its two larger neighbors for trade and investment. China, alone accounts for 33% of imports, as well as 89.1% of exports. Additionally,  over 60% of Mongolia’s overall economy depends on China. But the border has remained closed for most of the past two years.

 

Mongolia is often referred to as an “island of democracy,” as it is the only multiparty democracy in the region. With airports shut down, the country became a real island, isolated from the world. Foreign direct investment, which normally accounts for 17.46% of GDP, dropped by 35%, and tourism approached zero.

 

As Deputy Prime Minister Sainbuyan Amarsaikhan explained, “This pandemic has been the most serious challenge facing humanity, affecting the countries and peoples of the world, despite the borders, different religions, cultures, and ways of life.” He went on to state that as a political leader, the pandemic was the most difficult problem he has had to face.

 

For a small, developing country, which has only had democracy since the 1990, just after the fall of the Soviet Union, Mongolia has had to quickly learn difficult lessons about the democratic governance of a free populace, as well as managing a market economy. In spite of the pandemic, during the past two years, the country has held four multiparty elections. Amarsaikhan listed them. “We were able to hold the state kural election (parliament) in June 2020. November 2020 local elections were held in all sums (districts) and subdistricts. Last June, we had the presidential election. We also had a re-election of two seats on the kural.” 

 

 

He commented on the difficulty of holding elections during a pandemic. “We had to go through three or four distinct processes for each election, because the lockdown was different for each. During the election in 2020, there were no local cases. Last November’s election was in a total panic, because local cases were discovered and there was risk of spread.”

 

As for covid restrictions, the deputy prime minister said, we have “tried to adopt and implement the most appropriate decisions and measures to combat the pandemic and protect the health and lives of its citizens… in hindsight, we may condemn or criticize the strict quarantine and isolation measures… but in fact, the pandemic was new to the world… And, most importantly, there was no vaccine to prevent infection or reduce complications and mortality. Moreover, it was not known what medications were effective for those infected. And even health professionals could offer no other solution than restricting movement.”

 

He further explained that he, and other lawmakers, were faced with the challenge of addressing the pandemic and saving lives, without violating the rights of citizens. Amarsaikhan said that every decision taken by the government had “to be humane and transparent…. respecting human rights.” Recently, Mongolia has launched new human rights initiatives, becoming the first country in Asia to provide a framework of protection of human rights defenders.

 

According to the Amarsaikhan, Mongolia was faced with unique challenges, compared with Western nations. “Special features of our country include extreme continental climate.” From November to March, the temperature in the capital can plummet to -40 Celsius. In the provinces, it can be even colder. About 50% of the population still lives in traditional gers (yurt tent-houses) heated with coal-burning stoves. As a result, respiratory illnesses are rampant, with pneumonia being the second most common cause of death among children.

 

 

Amarsaikhan went on to say that “the capital city of Ulaanbaatar is home to more than half of the population.” The high population density increases the threat of contagious disease. “The population is small. The rural areas’ population is scattered.” Roughly 40% of the population are nomadic herders. This reduces their access to hospitals and makes it difficult for health officials to contact them.

 

In his view, the situation was further exacerbated by “a large share of the population with underlying health conditions.” Although hepatitis is being brought under control, and is not nearly as prevalent as it was 10 years ago, the disease is still quite common. Additionally, 55% of Mongolians are overweight, while 20% are obese. And obesity is one of the main predicators of the likelihood of death from Covid. On the plus side, the median age in Mongolia is only 28, an age demographic unlikely to die from Covid.

 

On the financial side, the government of Mongolia simply has less money to work with when it comes to addressing health issues. Under normal conditions, Amarsaikhan said, “There is a big gap between urban and rural development. Infrastructure is underdeveloped. We have poor quality of health services and inadequate health care access.” During the pandemic financial issues became even more acute. “The economy is dependent on mining exports.” And with borders closed, there was no way for the country to earn money. Supply chains were disrupted, people lost their jobs, and the government was faced with tackling a health crisis.

 

International donors sent medicine and equipment. Amarsaikhan expressed his gratitude to “the International Organization on Migration (IOM) and the Red Cross, as well as our neighbors, China, Russia, and India which made the vaccines, although they had their own shortages during this hard time, especially at the beginning of the vaccinations.” When the vaccines arrived, the Mongolian government was faced with the difficult task of building specialized storage facilities, in accordance with international standards of safety, to properly preserve the drugs.

 

 

Amarsaikhan detailed how when oxygen machines were donated, the government had to figure out how to install them in ambulances and how to get them to rural areas. “We had to transport and distribute all of these ventilators and oxygen. We hired students and got them involved, in all different levels, and appointed them to the countryside.”

 

Now that the situation seems to be winding down, the government is faced with a new challenge.

 

“We plan to get the economy going again, with international investors, and supporting local business through different programs, and policies and new laws, and promote national industry.”

 

Author Bio:

Antonio Graceffo, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is a Ph.D. and also holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. He works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his books include: The Wrestler’s Dissertation, Warrior Odyssey, Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion, and A Short Course on the Chinese Economy.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

--Antonio Graceffo

--Pikist (Creative Commons)

--Susynoid (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

--Excellentcc (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

 

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