An interview with Tsembel Danzankhuu, social service coordinator for Holt Mongolia, about how the COVID-19 is affecting children and families in Mongolia — and how sponsors and donors are helping to meet their most urgent needs.
How is the pandemic affecting children and families in Holt’s Mongolia programs?
I would like to say that the situation is not good at all. Our children in Mongolia and the families are being very much affected by this pandemic. Why? Because first of all, they are very vulnerable families we are serving. And many of the families, especially single moms, have been very affected because [they are now] out of work. … And there are no relief funds from the government. … So many families are struggling now to feed their children and whatever income they have they are spending on food only. This pandemic is also creating some prices to go up, like food prices. Winter also just started and we have three months to go so they also have to worry about how to keep themselves warm. They have to buy coal for fuel. … This is all really affecting them.
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How much do they spend on coal to heat their homes?
Since all the children are staying home now, they have to burn coal 24 hours a day. The government has lowered the price of coal and also zeroed electricity bills. But three sacks of coal is $1 and per month, a family would still spend $30 on coal. When it’s not too cold, they use one sack in two days. Now, they will burn about two, three sacks in one day. … Our cold is not ordinary cold. It’s bitter. Right now, the temperature is already reaching -25 Celsius (-15 F) during the day and in the night it almost reaches -40 degrees Celsius.
There are so many challenges right now. [They have to choose] to feed their children, to feed themselves or to keep warm. So many people are just putting on layers of coats and then also this is affecting them. They’re getting colds and also it’s flu season.
How are sponsors and donors helping to meet their most urgent needs?
Sponsors and donors, their support has contributed so much to these families. Families have nothing to support them except for some allowance from the government for each child. … So from Holt funds, we bought many food items like flour, rice, vegetable oils, which is the daily supply of food for all families. And we distributed sanitizing materials and masks to families. … They live in gers so they don’t have access to tap water.
Every month, at the beginning, we also transfer funds to families’ banks accounts so they can buy food, medicine and coal. But now, before the month ends, they will start calling us and say they are finished with the food. They don’t have anything to eat.
How is COVID-19 affecting Mongolia in general and what is life like there right now?
The government eased restrictions and allowed schools to reopen in the fall. But the situation changed dramatically when the first case of locally transmitted COVID-19 was confirmed in Ulaanbaatar. The government immediately enforced strict lockdown. This time, not only schools were closed, but also all businesses were shut down. Within a month, the positive cases rose to 350, and continue to rise. Today, we have more than 700 locally transmitted COVID-19 cases.
There are 5-6 cluster areas that are considered the most critical areas. Ulaanbaatar is considered a cluster area; there are many people coming down with COVID-19. And in general, everything is locked down except for hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores and a few government agencies. People are not going to work. There is no salary for those people. … And that is the main reason that poverty has increased now. The government is taking care of some food, but it’s not reaching all families. There are many families that can’t be reached because they don’t have permanent residences and are living in the remote region. … Many families also live by collecting recyclable items from the landfill, which is also closed.
People are really depressed and stressed out. [Before the shutdown], Holt provided hot meals to more than 250 students at informal schools in three districts. But that has stopped, also, since schools have closed. Every day, we call those families and ask how they are doing. The news is not good.
How are children learning while schools are closed?
School will not open until February 1. So that is a very bad impact. Many children are already falling behind. The TV channels give daily lessons to all grades. Each channel has a special program for children, for students, but that is very short and most of the children are not interested in learning from TV. It is too fast, and the teacher is different every time. Families in poverty don’t have computers at home so that’s also one of the main reasons that children are not learning.
We did provide six computers to the library where children can access the internet and do their schoolwork, but that is also closed right now. … I was telling those families to use your textbooks also. You can also learn from textbooks. You don’t have to rely only on television. … We are calling the families daily to give them confidence, support and tell them this is temporary. Most importantly, we tell them to follow the guidelines to protect themselves from coronavirus.
Is there anything you would like to say directly to sponsors and donors?
First of all, I would like to thank them very much. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your support has contributed so much to those families and they also appreciate it. … On behalf of all the families in the family strengthening program, in the Mongolia program, we’d like to say thank you and please continue your support and we will make sure your support reaches every child and family who is in desperate need.
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