Behind Mongolia’s COVID-19 success is a story of lost livelihoods

Ariuntuya is no stranger to tragedy. Thirteen years ago, the 51-year-old lost both her legs in a car accident. She lost her much-loved husband some 10 years ago, and two years later her son tragically died in another car accident. Her immediate family gone, she now lives with her 15-year-old niece in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, making her living by sewing woollen slippers.

Yet even this simple livelihood is now under threat due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Tourists, who were her primary customers, can no longer travel to Mongolia. After the country shut down to prevent the spread of the virus, many of her local customers stopped placing orders after losing their jobs. Without an income, Ariuntuya now relies on food parcels from the Mongolian Red Cross Society (MRCS). “I appreciate the good gesture shown by the Red Cross in helping me and my family in a time I need them the most,” she said.

Stories like Ariuntuya’s are playing out in homes all across Mongolia, a country which has not received global attention largely due to its relative success in tackling COVID-19. As of late September, only 313 COVID-19 cases and zero deaths were reported in the country. This was achieved through restrictions on movement and widespread prevention measures, such as the closure of borders and schools at the start of the pandemic. Though schools re-opened at the start of September, international flights have not resumed.

These restrictions have led to significant socio-economic impacts and increased vulnerability among poor households. The World Bank’s Household Response Survey revealed the impact on the country’s poorest families in stark terms: nearly half of poor respondents had been uncertain about their ability to obtain food in the previous 30 days due to lack of money or rising prices; almost one in four (23%)  were concerned about food security in the coming week; more than half (53%) said they were worried about their finances over the next month. Moreover, the report revealed that 12% of households experienced job losses, and 7% of households had to close their non-farm business.

In response to this economic impact, the Mongolian Red Cross, together with the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC), has been providing food and hygiene parcels to the most affected families. So far they have reached more than 3,000 households. Red Cross staff and volunteers are also part of the fight to contain the spread of COVID-19, distributing face-masks, conducting hygiene training and information sessions as well as providing psychosocial support.

Secretary General of MRCS, Bolormaa Nordov, said the country’s economic situation was becoming more challenging every day. “These challenges directly lead to significant negative impact on social vulnerability and household livelihoods. IFRC’s COVID-19 operation provided timely support for the most vulnerable households during this pandemic.”

Head of the IFRC’s East Asia support team, Gwendolyn Pang, said: “The impacts of COVID-19 in Mongolia are much greater than the limited number of infections and deaths in the country. At IFRC we always value the impact on human lives, more than the numbers.”

“In the case of Mongolia, we try to reach out to the most vulnerable people in the most hard to reach communities with services and information that not only protect people from COVID-19 but alleviate the human suffering that is a tragic side effect of this pandemic.”

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