Mongolian pastoralists face covid-19 with traditional calm

Nomadic people represent an unusual challenge during pandemics. With herders comprising a large part of Mongolia’s population, Troy Sternberg looks at their experiences of covid-19

Before the UK had its first case of covid-19, Mongolia had already closed its border with China. News of the virus flooded TV and social media in the capital Ulaanbaatar and filtered through the rural hinterlands. While the city went into emergency mode, the implications of covid-19 for pastoralists living on Mongolia’s steppe (an expansive and often isolated area of grasslands) were unknown. 

With herders isolated, far from services, and keen to migrate with their animals, would they present a risk as possible vectors of the virus? There are two schools of thought about mobile people in pandemics. One posits that “spreading events” abound at water points, markets, and along migration routes; the other avers that distance from neighbours and towns preserves isolation and confers protection.

In the nation of three million people, pastoralists comprise around 30% of the population, according to Mongolia’s latest census data. Consequently, addressing the needs and vulnerabilities of rural communities was essential to any covid-19 response and containment in Mongolia. 

Public health communication, arranging plans and supplies, and maintaining livelihoods were immediate challenges in rural communities. The presence of a national healthcare system is a positive legacy of the Soviet era, yet infectious diseases (tuberculosis, hepatitis C, STIs) are widespread. The rudimentary, rural version of Mongolia’s healthcare system is confined to district towns and is of dubious quality. Amid this uncertainty, we investigated Mongolian herders’ experiences of covid-19 in November 2020. 

“We have our meat and milk, what more do we need?”*

This quote highlights how herding comprises a modified subsistence lifestyle. Livestock provide basic needs such as food; dung for fuel; and income through the sale of animals, meat, wool, skins, and, most profitably, cashmere for the international market. Herding is a difficult, independent livelihood and Mongolia is the world’s least densely populated country. A national conundrum is how to provide health access and development opportunities in marginal pastoral communities. The remoteness of these regions affects people’s diet, maternal and child health, and preventative care. With a life expectancy of 69 years, Mongolia trails other Asian countries in health outcomes. Viewed in this context, the limited tools Mongolia had to control the pandemic needed to be effective.

Covid-19 awareness came quickly to pastoralists when in February 2020 the government cancelled Tsagaan Sar, the three day Mongolian New Year celebration. Masks and social distancing were required in towns, while travel outside districts and to the capital was stopped. Local clinics prepared “isolation rooms” for potential covid-19 patients; staff visited households to explain the disease; and, importantly, the Health Ministry texted information updates every three days. Schools and nurseries were closed with children sent home, reuniting families in gers (tent abodes) in time for the intensive spring animal birthing season. More surprisingly, alcohol sales were banned to promote better public health. The government’s emergency outreach and word of mouth made herders mindful of the pandemic. 

In our series of interviews in November 2020, herders ascribed their positive response to covid-19 to their customary resilience and effective coping strategies honed through encounters with drought, insect invasions, and extreme cold (temperatures can drop to as low as -40oC). Neighbours helped each other out, food was brought to those in need, and elders were supported as communities pulled together. For three months pastoralists were diligent but with summer’s warmth and and the pull of work, from combing cashmere to milking animals, people relaxed. Local beliefs, such as that drinking milk gave protection from the virus, were espoused. The good news was that among the pastoralists we spoke with, no one reported having covid-19 or knew of anyone who had.

Rapid government engagement was key. Although social support is limited in normal times, Mongolia’s parliament initiated covid-19 payments of $35/month for each child under 18 and a cash bonus for cashmere sold. These programmes meant that herders had enough income to meet their basic needs as they lost some of their usual markets, such as sales in the capital. Middlemen no longer visited camps to buy products, leaving few opportunities to raise income. Yet between herders’ self-reliance and financial support, a crisis was avoided.

“Prioritise the nation’s safety and citizens’ health”**

The rural response highlighted pastoralists’ enduring coping skills and social networks that made the pandemic inconvenient but not devastating in 2020. Summer migration continued, fermented horse milk suffused the steppe as usual, and families felt the restrictions encouraged a more traditional, positive pastoral lifestyle. Herders perceived that they were valued as part of a cohesive society where safety and health for all was paramount. 

Preparation, rural communities’ isolation, and attentive governance were successful in containing the pandemic across the Mongolian steppe throughout 2020. Yet since early March this year, the number of infections and recorded deaths have been rising in Mongolia. Insightful herders we spoke with associated covid-19 with recurring bubonic plague episodes for which the government is prepared. As Mongolia grapples with climbing case numbers, these strategies could be applied to the pandemic response.

* herder, male, 56

** herder, female, 42

Troy Sternberg is a researcher in the School of Geography, University of Oxford. He has conducted fieldwork in Mongolia since 2005.

Competing interests: none declared.