Shall we continue to fake COVID-19 restrictions?

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I am not sure where to start. Because although it all seems so obvious to understand, it looks like many people want to refuse to believe that they are getting played by politics whether intentionally or otherwise.

The new Parliament’s first session clearly showed us that that COVID-19 related restrictions in Mongolia don’t apply to those up top.

Members of Parliament have clearly violated at least the following restrictions on June 30 at their first session: (i) did not wear face mask during the session; (ii) did not follow the social distancing rule; (iii) kissed each other in public; (iv) exchanged khuurug (snuff bottle); (v) everyone used the same pen to sign documents; and (vi) all bowed before the same flag and grabbed it from the same spot.

A law passed by Parliament rules that everyone must wear a face mask in public places, including public or private offices. If not, they are to be fined.

Newly elected lawmaker Tserenpuntsag, who’s known most prominently for his wrestling career, went to lawmaker Bat-Erdene, one of the most successful wrestlers in Mongolian history, who kissed him on his cheek during the fest session of Parliament. Health Minister and lawmaker Sarangerel also went to Prime Minster Khurelsukh and had a similar exchange.

Exchanging khuurug is a traditional way of greeting. A person hands his or her khuurug to everyone and the person who received has to take a whiff of the snuff inside from the brim of the khuurug. In other words, the very same khuurug passes through everyone that he or she is greeting. Khuurug greeting also took place during the first session.

When taking an oath to the state seal and state flag, each and every member used the same pen to sign on the written oath and grabbed the state flag from the same corner without gloves or any kind of sanitary measure in between.

The Law on Prevention From and Fight Against the Pandemic of Spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Mitigation of Its Socioeconomic Impact was passed by just two months ago, but the new Parliament has already broken the law. The articles violated during the first session of the new Parliament are articles 12.2.1 and 12.2.5, according which they are obliged to follow the following rules:

  • 12.2.1. Follow and comply with the guidance, warning, notice, demand/requirement, rules, instructions, regimes of restrictions on time and movement, quarantine, and/or decisions made/approved by the relevant authority(s).
  • 12.2.5. Wear a face mask all the time when in office and in public places, to wash hands constantly, and to follow daily sanitarian measurements.

It should be highlighted that such violations are subject to penalty according to the amendment that Parliament made to the Law on Infringements in relation to the Law on Prevention From and Fight Against the Pandemic of Spread of Coronavirus. Article 5.13.2 of the Law on Infringements regulates that an individual who violates the COVID-19 law shall be charged 500,000 MNT or 30 days of jail time and legal entities who violated the rules are subject to a fine of 10,000,000 MNT. With the evident violation of the law that was passed just two months ago, Parliament and its members are setting a bad example, where the country’s supreme legislative body is able to ignore the law it passed while the rest of us are to contend with the restrictions that stifle businesses and cause unemployment in some instances.

The Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) held its Baga Khural (presidium) session on July 1, during which it also failed to follow the social distancing and face mask rules. One of the photos taken during the session shows how few members were actually wearing face masks and how close they were to each other. Despite the fact that they were fully aware that the public is watching, MPP and Parliament members seem to have already forgotten the legislated COVID-19 restrictions in place.

In the meantime, a video of Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, greeting Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, showcased their new greeting etiquette amid COVID-19, which has gone viral on social media. Not only that, but we can learn many other good examples of politicians of other countries following the very rule that they have created, including in South Korea and Japan.

If we look at how Mongolian politicians “pretended” to be following the COVID-19 restrictions to make us feel like those restrictions are justifiable, we know that there was a big show of following the stated guidelines in the past. The last Parliament split its members into seven to eight-member groups in conference rooms and organized its sessions through video calls.

While the new Parliament is breaking the COVID-19 related domestic restrictions in front of our very eyes, the police are forcing business owners to stop protesting against restrictions.  For example, the protest organized by the Mongolian National Chamber of Commerce and Industry on May 1 was forcibly stopped even though it barely involved people. They used mannequins and other kinds of work tools such as sewing machines, tables, chairs, and others to express their opposition to the excessive restrictions in place that stifle their business. Another protest organized by stand-up comedy business owners on July 1 was stopped even though they followed all the COVID-19 restrictions in place. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Khurelsukh went to the biggest open market in Mongolia, Narantuul, and shook hands and hugged people in the market during the election campaign. Yet, he is the person who has said, “Let’s all follow the restrictions, otherwise 3 million people of Mongolia will risk death.”

We all appreciate that there is no confirmed domestic case of COVID-19 at the moment, however, the cost of these unjustifiable restrictions that the lawmakers themselves are faking is outrageous. What is even more outrageous is that children under 12 are not allowed in any place for some reason. Yet, the State Emergency Committee just has decided to extend the restrictions until July 15. I won’t be surprised anymore if they make a decision to extend the restriction on the very last day of it.

About 10,000 Mongolians and many expats that live and work in Mongolia have been locked out of Mongolia for about three months or longer. Officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and State Emergency Committee explained that the reason why they cannot bring back as many people as they want is the capacity of quarantine facilities. Meanwhile other countries have even built temporary hospitals to address this problem. A silverlining to the pandemic crisis is that it’s occurring during the warm season of Mongolia. Which means, there are sufficient reasons to believe that there are many ways to increase the capacity of quarantine facilities if the government actually acts in the interest of the people.

The Ulaanbaatar Mayor’s Office spent 3.2 billion MNT to decorate the garden in front of Sukhbaatar Square and the government is planning to spend 3 billion MNT on Naadam celebrations this year, despite citing lack of funding and capacity to bring its citizens from abroad. Thousands of Mongolians are stranded abroad, unable to return or work to make a living in the countries they are stuck in.

From the perspective of keeping our tradition, it might be a wise decision to “diminutively” organize the biggest traditional event of our nation. However, it will not be wise at all to spend this much money when we cannot even bring back our citizens and expats whose life is centered on Mongolia. On April 1, The New York Times published a list of events being cancelled because of COVID-19, which included many events and festivals that were deemed culturally and traditionally indispensable.

We can fake COVID-19 restrictions and organize an opening ceremony for a fountain and celebrate Naadam to our heart’s content, but we cannot ignore the post COVID-19 economic crisis and the real difficulties that citizens of Mongolia are struggling with abroad. Lack of funding and a pretense at keeping public safety measures are not sufficient reasons to not help our countrymen that are started, and continue to hurt businesses that employ and provide services to the people of Mongolia.

Myagmardorj Buyanjargal
Myagmardorj is a freelance writer and certified translator who holds a Bachelor of Law Degree from the National University of Mongolia and Bachelor of Science Degree in engineering in mining technology from the Mongolian University of Science and Technology.