Mongolia and Coronavirus

by John Grogan

On the evening of Saturday January 25th I organised the annual Burns supper in Ulaanbaatar where the nighttime temperature can drop to -40c. A bagpiper from Glasgow dressed in a kilt and fortified by the finest Scottish whisky played outside the venue. With his rendition of ‘Scotland the Brave’  he welcomed a variety of ambassadors, business representatives and a Scottish judo team far from home. The  event had been planned from my kitchen table in Yorkshire with the help of my business partner who is an adventure travel entrepreneur from Glasgow and the Honorary Consul for Mongolia in Scotland no less.

Yorkshire firms have imported cashmere from Mongolia for many decades. Stanley Burton, son of the founder of Leeds clothing retailer Burtons, visited the country twice in the 1970’s. He fell in love with the place and supported Leeds University with funding for Mongolian studies. I myself first visited as part of the inaugural parliamentary delegation from Westminster in 1998 just a few years after Russian troops pulled out and a democratic government was elected.

The relevance of my tale to the struggle against coronavirus is simple. The day after the Burns Supper on January 26th ( a Sunday) the Mongolian Cabinet met and stopped all large public gatherings because of fear of the virus . Our dinner was to be the last of its kind for many months. All schools and colleges were closed. Prime Minister Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh said simply

‘This is a time to govern ….I will prioritise the health and well being of the Mongolian people first, then the economy’.

Over the next few weeks international flights were cut back to a skeleton service allowing Mongolians to return from abroad and ex patriates to leave. The borders with mighty neighbours Russia and China were sealed to all but essential goods traffic.  On February 12th the Government banned celebrations of Mongolian New Year (Tsagaan Sar) when large groups of family members and neighbours would normally have gathered together to celebrate. To put this date in some context more than a month later in England crowds would be gathering for the racing at Cheltenham. I myself left Mongolia in the final days of January and was frowned on at the airport for not wearing a mask. As of April 19th there have been just 32 cases in Mongolia of coronavirus with no fatalities. All of these were people arriving from abroad. Through careful contact tracing and testing community spread of the virus has until now been stopped in its tracks. For weeks the Mongolian Parliament has been meeting online and recently approved an economic stimulus package.

Mongolia has an annual income per capita of less than 5000 US dollars per head but they have successfully marshalled their resources. Perhaps in Europe we need to be a little more respectful and willing to learn from others around the world. The country is a genuine democracy – you do not have to be an authoritarian superpower like China to successfully keep the virus at bay.  Like most of its neighbours in Asia both government and citizens were attune to the threat of a pandemic because of the recent experience of Sars. In the West, although pretty well every expensive exercise of risk analysis conducted by governments or businesses in the last two decades identified pandemics as a major threat, the response has been more uncertain and faltering. At its most basic countries like Mongolia, Taiwan and New Zealand from the outset aimed to prevent community spread of the virus and then eliminate it. In much of Europe the plan has rather been to delay the pace of infections which has resulted in a much greater cost in terms of loss of life and business activity. Surely in the future a much more robust international response to the threat of pandemic with early warning systems needs to be introduced.  It is of course possible that the next such virus will be more virulent still and that is the assumption on which our planning must be based as it most certainly will be in Mongolia. For the moment it is becoming obvious that without a vaccination or drugs to treat the virus no exit plan from lockdown in the United Kingdom is going to be credible without the widespread availability of testing; a system of contact tracing; a ready supply of masks and more checking of arrivals at airports. Meanwhile the challenge for Mongolia will be to gradually lift the current restrictions without risking a more widespread outbreak of the virus.

800 years ago Genghis Khan conquered half of the known world. Perhaps his descendants have something to teach us about the battle against coronavirus today.

John Grogan

Chair of the Mongolian British Chamber of Commerce

April 26, 2020