April 26, 2020
ERDENEBULGAN, ARKHANGAI PROVINCE, MONGOLIA — When my phone rang at 3 a.m. on February 13, I knew it was an emergency.
I am the only epidemiologist in the largest hospital in Arkhangai province, in central Mongolia, where I live and work.
In February, the new coronavirus was still largely unknown to us. Still, we were already in emergency preparedness mode. On January 27, the Mongolian government locked down most of the country – travel, schools and institutions – in response to the threat of the coronavirus from neighboring China.
That night, the nurse on the other end of the line informed me that someone in a nearby soum – that’s what we call districts in Mongolia – was showing symptoms of what was suspected to be COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Not long after the call, an ambulance picked me up, and we drove the 36 kilometers (22 miles) to Bulgan soum. Before we arrived at the patient’s home, my colleagues and I – an infectious disease doctor, a lab worker and another staffer – piled on protective gear and reviewed the medical notes of the case.
It was dark, and the freezing February temperatures quickly pierced our thin protective suits.
I have been an epidemiologist here for nine years. My mother made me become a doctor. My husband is a doctor, too. But in truth, my dream since I was a child was to be a journalist.
Now, I am both. And the jobs are really quite similar.
As an epidemiologist, it is my job to investigate patterns and map infections. As a Global Press Journal reporter, it is my job to investigate issues and find stories of consequence.
When I graduated from Global Press Institute, the training arm of Global Press Journal, late last year, I became one of seven local journalists now tasked with the awesome responsibility of telling stories about Mongolia to a massive global audience. I took a part-time contract so I could balance the new role with my job at the hospital.
I never imagined that just one month into my new role as a journalist, a pandemic would emerge, testing my time and ability to perform both jobs.
The hospital has 328 employees. But just one epidemiologist. Me.
On that cold February night, the fear of encountering a new infectious disease was terrifying. I was thinking like a doctor to keep myself safe and process the information at hand. But also like a reporter: What a story this would make! I was thinking like a mother, too. I had kids at home, and I was six months pregnant. It was a trying night – and I’ve had many more since.
About a month after we visited that patient in Bulgan, who later tested negative for COVID-19, Mongolia’s State Emergency Commission adopted a resolution allowing pregnant women and those with children under 12 to work from home or receive paid leave.
I considered it. But I don’t dare take leave from my work now. There is no other epidemiologist to replace me at the hospital, and the world is facing a horrible pandemic.
While the number of cases in Mongolia has remained limited, the rest of the world hasn’t been so lucky.
On March 11, the World Health Organization characterized this as a pandemic. By now, 2.8 million people have been infected and more than 195,000 have died.
So I continue to work, overtime. Every day I interview patients, order more protective gear and train hospital staff to prepare for an influx of cases we hope never comes.
My job as a doctor has taken precedent over my role as a reporter in these trying times. My oath requires it. But as the imminent threat subsides, which we hope is soon, there will be many stories to tell. Stories of recovery and illness. Innovation and grief. Stories of the new ways of being that will emerge post-coronavirus.
These are stories that must be told.
I’m the only epidemiologist in my hospital. But I’m the only international journalist who lives and works here, too.