COVID Underdogs: Mongolia

By Indi Samarajiva

Indi Samarajiva
An evacuation flight from COVID-struck Europe to much safer Mongolia

Mongolia has had the best COVID-19 response in the world. Not only do they have zero deaths, they have zero local transmissions. Mongolia didn’t flatten the curve or crush the curve — they were just like ‘fuck curves’. In Mongolia, there simply wasn't an epidemic at all.

And no, they didn’t just get lucky.

Starting in January, Mongolia executed a perfect public health response, and they have never let up the pressure since. COVID-19 did not just leave Mongolia alone. Mongolia kicked its ass.

For this all this hard work, however, they get little credit. Nobody’s talking about the ‘Mongolian example’. Instead, we talk about total failures like Germany or Sweden. Like I’ve said, success is ZERO, and Mongolia is as zero as you can get.

Just look for yourself. See the actions they took, when they took them, and how effective it was. I think you’ll be as mind-blown as I was. Mongolia’s response was intense, and somehow involved 30,000 sheep.

Wait, Mongolia?

No.

The city of Ulaanbaatar. Urban enough for COVID-19 to munch on

Density

In fact, Ulaanbaatar (307 people per km²) has a similar density to Bergamo, Italy (400 per)— the epicenter of the outbreak in Italy; one of the worst-hit places in the world. Low density didn’t save Bergamo. On its own, it won’t save anybody.

What about sheer remoteness? Where is Mongolia anyways?

Remoteness

So it wasn’t remoteness that saved them either.

The Bias

“They couldn’t possibly have saved their own asses, aren’t they poor?”

This causes some serious cognitive dissonance in western commentators.

“Poor… but not dead… must be the weather.”

Countries are used to giving aid to places like Mongolia, to sending advisors. It simply does not compute that they should have been getting advice from Mongolia the whole time.

But just look at the facts. Look at the numbers on the board. Look at what Mongolia did, when they did it, and tell me it’s just luck. Actually don’t. I’ll get pissed. They worked really hard and it’s plain for anyone to see.

Coronavirus didn’t leave Mongolia alone. They killed it. Ded.

20/20 Foresight

Altantsetseg Tsedevdorj knocks on a door in Mongolia’s Darkhan-Uul province, hoping to educate the homeowners on how to protect their family from the spread of the coronavirus. (Myagmarsuren Battur, Global Press Journal)

Imagine that you could go back in time to January 23rd with the horse race results and, I dunno, the new iPhone. People believe you. China has just shut down Hubei Province, the largest cordon sanitaire in human history. What would you scream to your leaders? What would you tell them to do?

You’d tell them that this was serious and that it’s coming for sure. You’d tell them to restrict the borders now, to socially distance now, and to get medical supplies ready, also now. You’d tell them to react right now, in January itself. That’s 20/20 hindsight.

That’s exactly what Mongolia did, and they don’t have a time machine. They just saw what was happening in Hubei, they coordinated with China and the WHO, and they got their shit together fast. That’s their secret, not the elevation. They just weren’t dumb.

January 22

Health Minister Davaajantsan Sarangerel (right) with WHO representative Sergey Diorditsa

Some people think the WHO is like a paramilitary organization, busting into countries, investigating, telling everyone what to do. That’s not how they work. They’re just there to help. You have to listen to them, and you have to let them in. Mongolia did. On January 22nd, the Mongolian Health Ministry held a press briefing with the WHO to announce that shit was real.

They said there was human-to-human transmission (AKA, this is contagious AF) and that they had begun screening people and getting prepared.

If I could tell you the one secret to Mongolia’s success it’s this:

JANUARY!! JANUARY!!!! JANUARY!!!!!

Mongolia was putting its big person pants on in January. That made all the difference.

January 24

Irmuun Bayanmunkh, 7 is learning to ride horses at his uncle’s house while schools are shut down due to the spread of the coronavirus. In late January, Mongolia was one of the first countries to secure borders and close schools. (Myagmarsuren Battur, Global Press Journal)

At this point, flu season was already hitting Mongolia’s children hard, so the first thing they did was protect their young. Today we say that COVID-19 spares the young but A) we don’t know that in the long-term and B) we definitely didn’t know it then.

If I hear a vehicle coming around a corner I don’t wait to see the thing, I just move my kids. Mongolia moved their kids. They announced that schools would be shutting down on the 27th.

Another thing I want you to note is this. Mongolia announced almost all closures in advance. They weren’t like “oh shit, things are on fire get all your food by midnight” (I’m looking at you India). Because they were prepared and planned ahead, they were able to gradually lockdown without all the chaos.

I don’t know if I mentioned this but

JANUARY!!!!!!

This is also when Mongolia told people to wash hands, wear masks, and all the other things many of us only heard later. Mariah Carey didn’t teach Americans how to wash their hands until mid-March.

January 26

Three days after Hubei, the Mongolian cabinet held a special meeting, because they were taking this seriously. At this meeting, they decided to:

  • Close universities
  • Restrict vehicle crossings (not yet rail or air)
  • Prohibit public events
  • Release funds for medical equipment and personnel

Mongolia’s growth is almost completely export-driven, so they were taking a huge economic hit here, especially with zero cases. However, they were not like the dinosaurs in the west, looking at an asteroid saying “but the economy!

Mongolia didn’t negotiate with the virus, offering up their grandparents. They just told the virus to fuck off and saved everybody. Yes, their economy was hammered, but this was unavoidable. They saved as much of their economy as possible. They lived to fight another day.

This is textbook public health. Throughout this crisis Mongolia always looks like they’re overreacting, which is exactly what you’re supposed to do. That’s the only way to fight a virus that only shows up two weeks later. As Dr. Xifeng Wu said:

“Overreacting is better than not reacting.”

Do you know how Mongolia stayed at zero local cases? They acted like there were already a thousand. Also, and I don’t know if you’ve heard but:

IT’S STILL JANUARY!!!

January 27

Mongolia getting its students out of Wuhan

So at this point, with zero cases, Mongolia starts actually importing cases, on purpose. In a slow, controlled manner, they start repatriating Mongolians.

Other countries did this stupidly, allowing infected citizens to fly back unchecked while banning foreigners, as if the virus carries a passport. Mongolia deliberately and cautiously repatriated people, testing and quarantining them as they came in.

On the 27th, they started negotiating the return of 31 students from Wuhan. On February 1st they flew them back and quarantined the lot, including the flight crew. This began an ongoing process of repatriating and quarantining Mongolians, first for 14 and then 21 days. There wasn’t a mad rush back, they controlled it. This enabled them to manage imported cases and, again, reduce local transmission to zero.