-- Public explodes at government after cruel treatment of mother and newborn --
"Enough is enough" is what the hundreds and thousands of Mongolians who protested at Sukhbaatar Square on Wednesday effectively told authorities. The spontaneous demonstration relayed their revulsion with a recent incident where a mother and her newborn were transported to another hospital inhumanely and the exasperation with the government and State Emergency Commission (SEC)’s insensitive and inconsistent responses to COVID-19. The demonstration was ultimately for decency and human rights protection from the government, as well accountability for past indiscretions.
The cause of this peaceful demonstration was the footage of Urguu Maternity Hospital ushered away a mother with her
newborn son in her bathrobe and slippers on the cold and smoggy night of Tuesday after she tested positive for COVID-19. The scene of her being prodded away to the National Center for Communicable Diseases (NCCD) at freezing temperatures moments after giving birth like an animal was captured by journalists and went viral on social media, erupting protests by frustrated Mongolians who had been patient and tolerant with the government amid the pandemic for over a year.
The next morning, a peaceful demonstration unfolded at Sukhbaatar Square as individuals came on their own account to call out to the government and express their frustration. Chairman of Truths and Rights Party A.Otgonbaatar was among the first people to hold a demonstration. He donned a robe and slippers just as the poor mother had when she was forced to leave the hospital.
“Last night, a mother was transported (to the NCCD) wearing similar clothes as I am now. I’m appalled by such an inhumane action and so I’m now protesting against it. In other countries, the directors and heads apologize and resign. Who will take responsibility for this? Another per- son died at the city checkpoint when a lockdown was announced. The SEC is not doing its job. People should fear what the society is becoming,” he stated.
Hundreds of people, and soon thousands, started to gather at Sukhbaatar Square to express their disapproval of the disheartening event, as well as other pent-up frustration they had with the government amid CO- VID-19 restrictions and lockdowns. The most important fact we need to remember here is that the peaceful demonstration was spontaneous – although some political parties tried to hijack to promote their agenda. People of all walks of life just came voluntarily to stand up against the government, which has been failing to produce results via their COVID-19 responses for months, especially since the first community case broke out in November.
The number of protesters grew from only 10 individuals at 11:00 a.m. to thousands by noon. While there were many who came and went unable to endure the freezing temperature, others persisted and stood for hours to see through that the authorities are held accountable. Countless individuals were sighted in bathrobes and slippers despite temperatures reaching -10 degrees Celsius. Even a pregnant woman stood up for the mother along with others who went as far as going nude to make their point. The latest case of cruelty by the authority was just a culmination and a tipping point of many incidents that occurred during the COVID-19 lockdown. The reaction wouldn’t have been so drastic had the hospital provided an extra blanket to cover both the mother and her newborn son, quarantined her in the maternity ward until her family brought her outerwear and footwear, or did not cover her mouth with a pillow.
“I’m standing here in a bathrobe and slippers for a few minutes and already, I’m freezing. But if I’m like this, think about how difficult it was for the poor mother? This was extremely cruel and evil,” said a man clothed in the same fashion as the victim.
Another woman vexed, “I’m a mother so I know exactly how difficult it must have been for that woman when she didn’t receive the postnatal care she required. I came here today to say what I needed to say. I’m upset with the SEC. I can’t believe they treat- ed a citizen of Mongolia, a mother, in such a cruel way just to quarantine her. The SEC hasn’t done a proper job for a year now. If it can’t do its job, let those who can do it!”
“We’re going into the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, the SEC should have made a procedure or regulation on how to transport and quarantine anyone who tested positive at a maternity hospital. I’m ashamed at how much shock they had to force on a woman who had just given birth and I’m appalled by their audacity to drag her out of the hospital without a coat or shoes,” a young man said almost in tears.
“I thought that Mongolians would never let a mother who had just given birth outside in the middle of winter
– not to mention in a bathrobe and slippers. This could only be a foreign conspiracy to end Mongolia. Prime minister, if you can’t see this, listen to the public!” a middle-aged woman stressed.
The biggest complaint is that neither the hospital nor authorities would have treated the victim this way if she had been from a wealthy, affluent family or had some kind of connection.
‘IT WAS CRUEL TO COVER HER MOUTH WITH A PILLOW’
The younger brother of the victim B.Enkhdalai said in a live broadcast, “My sister and her husband went to the First Maternity Hospital five days ago but were told that only people tested negative for COVID-19 can be admitted. So they went to get tested. They showed their test results, which came out negative for the virus, to the hospital on January 14, but were tested again before entering. My sister gave birth to her son yesterday morning (January 19). We were all very happy at the news.”
He added that the husband had gone home to prepare for her dis-charge but the police secured their apartment complex for precautionary measure and prevented him from going out. Apparently, the husband had been making arrangements with other family members to give warm clothes, shoes, and coat to the new mother when the scene of her transportation from the hospital to the NCCD was broadcast live on TV.
“The worst of all is how they covered her mouth with a pillow. That was extremely cruel. There wasn’t a hint of humanity in the way she was forced out of the hospital – nobody helped her walk, nobody was there to prevent her from falling, and nobody put a blanket over her shoulders. My sister said that the person who carried her son told her to remove the pillow covering her mouth only when he leaves the car, which had opened its doors for 20 minutes before she came out. They even put on the loud siren as if they were carrying a criminal. That’s not all, she had to climb four flights of stairs in her fragile body after arriving at the NCCD,” B.Enkhdalai said.
The brother underlined that their the family doesn’t want some minister or official to resign but to resolve this issue and prevent this sort of inhumane incidents from happening in the future. At the beginning of the demonstration, most of the protesters at Sukhbaatar Square said that they didn’t want an apology, only assurance against such inhumane action from ever happening again. But things escalated as the crowd grew. It no longer was about just the injustice to a woman who had just given birth and a newborn, and the square became a place to vent out all of the frustrations and complaints with the government that people had been keeping to themselves to date. This incident was like a pin to an over-sized balloon that had been waiting to be burst. Finally losing their patience, Mongolians used this opportunity to lash out and voice out their discontentment with the authorities.
They held various signs that read, “Don’t insult/humiliate the public”, “Resign! Cabinet and SEC”, “Resign Sodbaatar”, “People affected by CO- VID-19 are human too”, “Be humane”, “(Not) Sorry SEC, you’ve got to go now”, “I’m scared” and so on.
By 7:00 p.m., so many individuals had joined the peaceful demonstration that it was getting difficult to follow social distancing guidelines with the police hedging protesters. Despite health risks, the crowd continued to grow and more people joined voluntarily to stand up against the government. Ac- cording to some estimates, more than 4,000 people joined the demonstration. The police called reinforcement to form a protective perimeter around the State Palace and control the crowd. Some officers were seen taking away one or two individuals, claiming that they caused the public disorder. However, protesters were peaceful other than calls for the authority to resign. They also encouraged each other to keep their distance and quickly calmed those who outburst with profanities. Almost 12 hours after the spontaneous demonstration started, people started to disperse but a handful remained at the square until midnight. However, that wasn’t the end. People returned the next morning with more placards.
INNOCENT LIVES LOST
On the same day, President Kh.Battulga remarked, “We, Mongolians, have declared in our Constitution that we shall respect human rights, freedom, justice and national unity, as well as build and develop a humane and civil democratic society in our country. However, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rights of citizens have been violated and people who have the right to live in a healthy and safe environment have been killed.”
“Every policy and action taken during the pandemic must be directed for the sake of the public and meet their daily needs. However, yesterday (January 19)’s events proved once again that in this difficult time, we’ve lost sight of the ultimate goal of our actions and are further degrading the value of the Mongolian people,” he added, before pointing out that the main problem was not irresponsibility of healthcare workers but the fact nobody prepared a contingency plan for an infected mother.
It certainly was the case – the authorities have made irresponsible and insensible decisions in the past that led to deaths of the innocent. On Novem- ber 23, a 10-year-old girl from Selenge Province who had a stroke arrived at the National Center for Maternal Child Health for emergency medical treatment but after waiting for three hours in a cold ambulance, she died because COVID-19 protocol prevented her from accessing the medical care she needed. Soon after, the city lockdown blocked a sick 58-year-old woman from Arkhangai Province from entering the capital and receiving the medical attention she needed, resulting in her death at Checkpoint No. 22 on December 7, 2020. Like so, the people continue to suffer due to inhumane, uncompassionate and irrational decisions made by the authorities.
It is a harsh world we’re living in now and no one expected a new citizen of Mongolia to face it just a few hours after birth. The newborn was transported in a thin blanket at extremely cold temperatures. Some people viewed this as an “attempted murder” and demanded those responsible be punished by the Criminal Code.
The National Human Rights Commission described the transportation of the mother and her child as “inhumane” and “negligent” and sent demands to the SEC. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the commission has submitted six human rights requirements and recommendations to the SEC. Currently, two human rights officers are reviewing operations of the NCCD.
“Failure to take action in accordance with the requirements of the commission member shall be grounds for submitting a proposal to the competent authority or official to dismiss the official, revoke the license of the legal entity, or terminate its activities,” the commission warned.
Victim blaming is a serious problem. One by one, the authorities started passing down blame, holding their subordinates accountable for the incident, and the subordinates passed it further down. As this continued on, at one point, officials started putting the blame on the poor woman who had just given birth. They claimed that the hospital offered a warm blanket but the mother refused, saying she was “fine”. Nevertheless, officials from the NCCD, Urguu Maternal Hospital and SEC apologized as they acknowledged that the mother and newborn were treated cruelly. The Ministry of Health apologized to the victims and their families for the irresponsible way they were transported, adding that the maternity hospital had an isolation room.
N.Purevsuren, the doctor who was in charge of the transportation, admit- ted to her wrongdoing and said she’d made the mistake while trying to ur- gently transport the COVID-19 patient. “There is a procedure for transportation. I made this personal mistake as I was trying to move the mother and child (to the NCCD) urgently. This is all my fault. I’d like to apologize to both the mother and child. I’m also sorry for discrediting the Mongolian public, SEC officials and my colleagues working in the health sector. I will take responsibility for my action. I'm sorry that my mistake has caused frustration in society,” she said.
Minister of Health T.Munkhsaikhan requested Ulaanbaatar Mayor D.Sumiyabazar to reprimand and fire Head of the Ulaanbaatar Health Department L.Tumurbaatar and Head of the maternity hospital G.Bayasgalan for the incident, but the mayor decided to let it off with a warning. But 15 minutes later, their dismissal was announced with immediate effect as the protesters swarmed Sukhbaatar Square.
WILL FIRING RESOLVE THE ISSUE?
The government had ardently refused to comment regarding the unraveling turmoil in the capital until it was announced that the prime minister will speak to the press at 7:00
p.m. During the press conference, the prime minister was absent, but the SEC Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister Ya.Sodbaatar and Health Minister T.Munkhsaikhan announced their resignation.
“SEC authorities are resigning due to the unfolding events. I have made a statement and expressed my deep- est regrets for yesterday’s incident. Though I wasn’t directly in charge of the matter, I regret that such inhumane and uncompassionate people are working for the state. I apologize to the prime minister who appointed me and the people of Mongolia,” Ya.Sodbaatar noted, before adding that neither he nor his team has made any “strategic” mistakes in the fight against COV- ID-19. He claimed that no one has died of COVID-19 due to the SEC’s efforts despite the fact two COVID-19 patients with underlying conditions have died and were accounted for by international health organizations.
T.Munkhsaikhan said, “I poured in everything to the fight against the pandemic. I have worked without reserve. As a result, we have managed to come thus far with little loss. We worked to eliminate the infestation of wrongs in the health sector. As a result, certain changes have been made. There are 57,000 health workers working in the health sector without eating or sleep- ing properly. We mustn’t deny their efforts just because of the irresponsibility of several people. I am now handing over my letter of resignation as the health minister.”
Without a doubt, high-ranking officials should have better managed issues related to quarantine, transportation and treatment toward COVID-19 patients. However, will firing workers, from the driver to the doctor to high-ranking state officials, fix the problem? The public is fighting for humane treatment, respect, and results from the tough and unceasing COVID-19 responses. The Mongolian people have been cooperative so far as they hoped that the extended strict lockdowns, closures of markets and travel restrictions would contain the spread of the virus even after the SEC’s “momentary lapse of judgment” let the virus spread within the country. However, what everyone sees is businesses going bankrupt, people struggling to make ends meet and more people affected by the virus. It’s a wonder why the public hadn’t demonstrated earlier, perhaps the latest incident of cruelty and warmer weather was the final straw.
The peaceful demonstration and unification of the public should serve as a wake-up call for the government and relevant authorities to reexamine their actions and behavior. The pandemic is certainly instilling fear and anxiety in society worldwide, but we shouldn’t let fear be the excuse to dis- criminate people or allow human rights to be violated. Some emergency officials have said that human rights take a back seat during a time of disaster. But I beg to differ, human rights are not something that can be turned on and off at will. It is enshrined in the Constitution exactly because it has to be ensured and protected at all times and everywhere. At the end of the day, we’re all humans and we need to act as such. Even animals can empathize and show kindness to their kin. We have to work together to combat and overcome this difficult time and ensure that everyone can see the light at the end of the tunnel.