The Mongolian Lunar New Year, referred to locally as Tsagaan Sar, just started today on Monday Feb 24th. This holiday is typically celebrated by preparing large amounts of food and feasting & drinking over a few days. Think of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, but extended over at least three days and a heavier emphasis on drinking (predominantly vodka but beer is common too). A given family will typically host a number of other visiting groups of relatives and friends to their home (each group typically visiting for at least an hour or so), and they in turn will spend part of the holiday visiting those other families at their homes.

A prime example of a Tsaagan Sar food setup.

With so many people traveling around and sharing food in close proximity, it’s a nightmare from an epidemic containment perspective. Thus the holiday celebration has been ‘cancelled’ by the Mongolian government. In truth, it’s not doing away with the entire holiday but rather the ‘celebration’ of it in terms of public gatherings, traveling, or hosting other families. People with regular jobs are still getting Monday through Wednesday off, but we’re all expected to do no traveling and observe the holiday by staying at home.

Now Mongolians on average don’t have a lot of respect for what the government proclaims, and often just go on doing their own thing. It’s usually one of their more endearing qualities, in my humble opinion. But in this specific situation it’s creating unnecessary risk. The Mongolian government is painfully aware that a proclamation alone will be mostly ignored, so from Feb 23-26 they’ve closed ALL the roads in and out of the capital (Ulaanbaatar) and the roads between the various provinces (Aimags). Additionally, they shut down all public transportation services in the capital from Feb 24-26. The day before the shutdown we drove out to pick up our kids at their grandparents’ house in the countryside, and the police already established the checkpoint where the road will be closed. They weren’t yet blocking traffic, but they WERE using handheld temperature scanners to scan all vehicle occupants leaving the city. Interestingly, they didn’t scan us on the way back into the city. My guess is they have a shortage of scanners and at some point just had to let cars through to avoid an epic traffic jam.

One of the temperature scanning checkpoints going in and out of the capital.

Such a thing is a little hard to imagine for most people from Western Europe, Australia, North America, etc., but it’s a reality here now. Being from Alaska I’m accustomed to major roads occasionally being closed due to weather or natural disaster, but this is the first time I’ve been in a place where it’s been done by government action. On a pragmatic level I have no problem with such temporary restrictions put in place in this specific situation, and I think it’s an intelligent move on the part of the Mongolian government. But it doesn’t change my discomfort with the situation. I wasn’t planning to leave town anyway, but I like having the option.

Now will this work to keep Mongolians from visiting other families during the holiday? At this point it looks like it will reduce the number of visits somewhat but will be lucky if it cuts it even by half. Those in the city may not be traveling out of town, but they’ll still visit other families in town. The parking lot outside my apartment is packed with more cars than normal, so if that’s any indicator I’d say only some are staying home. Public transportation may be shut down, but as far as I know all the roads within the city are still open. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if police are doing random stops to do temperature scans of drivers and passengers.

Those in the country are even less likely to observe the restriction, partly due to less familiarity with the nature of pandemics and partly because the ‘roads’ are often any number of dirt paths criss-crossing the countryside. “Closing the roads” is not terribly effective when much of the terrain is steppe and half the population doesn’t usually drive on pavement much anyway.

As you can see, many ‘roads’ in Mongolia are not a simple affair to close…

My wife’s opinion is the Mongolians in the countryside won’t observe the restriction at all. What makes this even more dangerous for them is that most people in the countryside don’t have running water and thus dishes & silverware often don’t get cleaned as thoroughly between uses. Additionally most live in gers (or “yurts” as most commonly know them) or small houses, and those close quarters make spreading infection even more likely.

Will this result in COVID-19 spreading in Mongolia? If I were forced to guess, I’d say the odds are it won’t because there aren’t any known outbreaks in any communities here yet (keeping fingers crossed). But it’s still taking an unnecessary risk, and people here need to establish the habits that will reduce any future spread of this flu. This isn’t the Zombie-Mutant-Biker-Apocalypse kind of flu that some alternative-media shills are hinting at, and I also suspect for the average person the odds of catching the virus are FAR less than the odds of feeling some pain from COVID-19’s economic fallout (interrupted supply chains, people staying at home more often, etc). But it’s certainly a much bigger deal than the seasonal flu, and reducing the spread even a little bit means a little less pain on everyone as a whole. That’s why our family is staying home this holiday… not because the government says so. In fact whenever a government and I are in agreement on something, I sometimes take it as a reason to re-examine my line of thinking. Not this time, but sometimes… 😉

Local COVID-19 news:
Mongolian airline MIAT cancels flights to Tokyo and Bangkok. Also a Mongolian language article mentioning the government suspending ALL flights (not just MIAT airlines) to and from South Korea until March 2nd. Funny to think that China, South Korea, and Iran are suffering travel restrictions because of outbreaks in their own country, but in Mongolia we’re seeing travel restrictions because most of the direct flights in & out are WITH said countries. At this point I believe the only flights going in and out are through Moscow.
Mongolia extends quarantine period until 1 April. In other words, schools remain closed until April 1st (and for students there was much rejoicing!).
Mongolia denies entry for 15 suspected people. Except for one Chinese citizen who flew via the capital’s airport in Ulaanbaatar, most of these appear to be Mongolians trying to get back into Mongolia via the land border. At this point I’m guessing they’ll have to wait until Mongolia charters special transportation to take them back and straight into quarantine.