Pandemic politics in turbulent times
On 20 January most of the world’s attention was turned to the inauguration of the President and the first female Vice President of the USA. However, at the same time, a different political incident took place on the other side of the world: a mass protest in the main square of the capital city of Mongolia. The demonstration was held despite bitterly cold temperatures and prompted the unexpected resignation of the government.
The turmoil in Ulaanbaatar was triggered after a woman who had tested positive for COVID-19 was transferred, with her just-born child, from a maternity hospital to a quarantine facility for COVID-19 wearing only a hospital gown and slippers, in freezing weather. This brutal incident was caught live and reported on television, and ignited public outrage at the government and health sector’s callous attitude towards COVID-19 patients, who are often treated like criminals.
COVID-19: An excuse for oppression
The cruel treatment of this new mother was a tipping point for the deep frustration the public has felt towards the government pandemic measures since the outbreak of COVID-19. Like everywhere, the pandemic has worsened the economic and social conditions of the country, increasing social inequality and poverty.
The Mongolian government did respond relatively quickly to the pandemic, adopting strict prevention and control measures to contain the virus from spreading. However, the policies have also enforced repressive measures and undermined civil liberties, which had already been under siege. The pandemic also has provided a pretext to justify discriminatory, intrusive measures with no consideration of human rights principles, the mother’s case being a perfect example.
It is thus no surprise that thousands of mostly young people—even pregnant mothers—took to the streets demanding government accountability and resignation of the incompetent emergency committee, the main body in charge of pandemic measures. The scope of the protests then enlarged, with objections to government restrictions on freedom of expression and the freedom to assemble. Under this great social pressure, the Prime Minister tendered his resignation, along with the vice Prime Minister and the Minister of Health.
A delicate democracy
The Mongolian government’s cruelty towards this new mother instigated Mongolians to reveal the deep-rooted political and human rights problems in the country, and brought to light flaws and fragilities in a democratic country which, ironically, is highly praised in the international community.
This peaceful protest, not orchestrated by any particular political party, can be seen as a breath of hope for the fragile Mongolian democracy. It proves once again that democracy is not a destination, but rather a journey in need of constant attention, especially in times of a pandemic.
Back on the other side of the globe, Amanda Gorman, the United States’ National Youth Poet Laureate, summed this up in the beautiful inauguration poem she wrote and read to the world: ‘The Hill We Climb’
“When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast, we’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace and the norms and notions of what just is, isn’t always justice. And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it, somehow we do it, somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.”
Bayartsetseg Jigmiddash is a legal practitioner from Mongolia with extensive experience in the field of legal policy, human rights and gender equality. She served as the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs of Mongolia overseeing the legal policy, strategy and the law enforcement sector in the country. She also has extensive international development experience working with local and international NGOs. Currently she is EUI STG Policy Leader Fellow.