How China’s next-door neighbour kept coronavirus out
It’s now five months since the novel coronavirus that ground the world to a halt was first detected in Wuhan, China, and data comparisons abound between countries that have handled the outbreak differently, from the UK to Sweden and the USA to Germany.
One country that has largely escaped international attention is Mongolia – China’s northern neighbour and the country with which it shares its biggest land border. At 4,630km, it’s one of the longest land borders in the world.
It might therefore comes as a surprise that Mongolia has no local transmission of the virus, with fewer than 100 confirmed cases and no deaths to date. So what has it done right?
First, it’s worth remembering that Mongolia is a sparsely populated country of only three million people, which should make containment easier. But low population density isn’t a Get Out of Jail Free card. It has good air, road and rail links with its southern neighbour, including a train line connecting Ulaanbaatar and Beijing, and it relies on China more than any other country for both import and export trade. Moreover, Chinese people form the largest group of migrants to Mongolia in recent decades.
Its reaction to the pandemic has been characterised by quick and early preventative action. In late January, shortly before the WHO declared a global public health emergency, the Government of Mongolia closed air and overland travel from China, as well as kindergartens and nurseries. This was followed by a ban on travel from COVID-19 hotspots, such as South Korea, before halting all international flights – except special charters, where passengers were screened and quarantined for 14 days, later extended to 21 days.
Its approach to internal movement has been similarly robust. In February, the government cancelled Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian Lunar New Year) celebrations – when people ordinarily travel from house to house visiting elderly relatives – and mobilised over 800 officers to monitor more than 300 checkpoints around the country. More recently, in early May, the authorities conducted a lockdown drill, shutting down a district of the capital city for 10 hours in a simulation involving over 3,500 government officials, healthcare workers and law enforcement officers.
Combined with testing and tracing, the strategy seems to be working. Thousands of Mongolian citizens have been repatriated, numerous cases of coronavirus have been diagnosed in quarantine and there remains no transmission among the general population. Meanwhile, daily life continues almost as usual, with most businesses (including bars and restaurants) remaining open.
As a young democracy, Mongolia’s handling of the pandemic so far has been a resounding success. But its biggest challenge lies ahead, in preventing an outbreak when international travel reopens and the rest of the world begins to find its feet.