My experience with the COVID-19 virus started in January. I was about 5 months into fieldwork in Mongolia and by then was out in the countryside, specifically around Bayan Uul sum in the very northeast of the country. At that time, the virus was being talked about on television and herders were discussing amongst themselves this new virus in China. No one I talked to seemed particularly worried about it and I too wasn't really concerned since I didn't think this would have any big impact on my research. Towards the end of January, however, it became clear that this was something bigger. On January 28th, Mongolian authorities began taking preventative measures such as closing schools, universities, and other public sites and restricting southern border movements of auto and pedestrians. On February 5th the Fulbright program in China was suspended, leaving those of us in Mongolia to wonder if/when the program there was to also be suspended.
Around that time, I had to travel from the countryside to the capital to renew my residency permit and there was a LOT that had changed in just a short space of time. Although the virus was known and talked about by those in the countryside, there didn't seem to be any change to everyday life. However, things were different in the city. First, on the bus ride to the capital (where half of the population in the country lives), everyone on the bus had to wear face masks and we all had our temperatures checked 3 times, whenever we stopped for food or a rest break. In the city, there were numerous posters and signs on buses to wear a mask, wash your hands, and other preventative measures. There was even talk about canceling Tsaagan Sar, the traditional new year celebration! The government and media were encouraging people to celebrate virtually rather than traveling, as is customary, from house to house.
When I arrived back to my host family all these things and the virus seemed to melt away - herders were busy preparing for the new year by sewing traditional outfits, gathering food supplies, and preparing for the births of new calves. Moreover, I had a very crappy internet connection so emails and news stories about the virus were hard to see. Although lunar new year celebration cancellations were followed in the cities, in the countryside everyone celebrated as normal. Despite major road closures put in place to dissuade/prevent travel for Tsaagan Sar from February 23rd to the 28th, almost everyone in my fieldsite traveled to the homes of their elders, exchanged gifts, drank/ate all night and day and often fell asleep on top of each other in each other's homes. During this time I was completely out of contact with the embassy, my advisors, and my family and was unaware of several developments: the stopping of all flights to and from Japan and South Korea, the decision to allow voluntary early departures from Mongolia for Fulbright grantees, the suspension of Peace Corps in Mongolia and the decision to extend the intercity travel ban to March 3rd (this would be extended again).
It was quite a shock for me then, the morning after we arrived back home from our lunar new year rounds, to be beckoned by my host father into his house and be told by my host mom that the embassy had called and that they were picking up all the Americans to be sent home. At first, I thought I hadn't heard correctly and then my confusion and disbelief slowly turned into a stomach-churning mix of sorrow, anxiety, and a little bit of anger. Although the celebration had been sometimes too much to handle, it had been transformative for me as a researcher. I had met new people, became more acquainted with those I barely knew, had received many invitations for research visits/interviews, and was becoming much better at carrying conversations and doing interviews in Mongolian. And in an instant, a door seemed to shut on all that. The embassy had tried in vain to contact me to arrange a car to come and get me in my fieldsite and by the time I was able to talk with them over the phone the only chance I had at leaving while I could was to pack up everything immediately and try to reach the provincial capital (about 3-4 hours drive) by the next morning, where a car was being sent for some Peace Corps workers. For me, the decision to leave was driven more by the possibility that I could require emergency medical care in the future and not be able to get it due to national and international travel restrictions. So I packed up, said goodbye to my host family, and whoever I could before leaving for the local village and then the provincial capital. Everything seemed to go quickly after that and I ended up arriving back in Ann Arbor on Friday, March 6th. The Fulbright program in Mongolia ended up being suspended four days later on March 10th.
I expected things to feel strange when I returned - everyone knows about reverse culture shock and knows to expect it after fieldwork. But there was nothing to prepare me for returning to an America that had changed completely. The first 2 weeks were the hardest. Shopping was strange not only because I had become accustomed to small general stores with meager offerings, but because for the first time in my life entire shelves and entire aisles were bare and not because it was a clearance or going-out-of-business sale. Thankfully, things feel fine now in this new normal. My advisors, especially my chair Stuart Kirsch, have given me a lot of support and guidance, for which I am very grateful. I was able to spend time with my family in Wyoming and am now helping with an online spring semester class. I try to work on my research regularly by going through notes, rereading articles and ethnographies and/or collecting news stories about how herders, food supply chains and the cashmere industry are being impacted by the virus. I am planting a small herb and veggie garden and just finished some sewing projects. Occasionally my best friend, who is in Virginia right now, and I will try to do a remote movie night together - our last feature film was Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho"! Despite everything, I am ok and my family and friends are doing ok too. That seems to be all I can wish for at the moment.
Initially, I was hoping to return to the field now, in May or June, however that won't be happening. Mongolia has not lessened its travel restrictions and is continuing to be proactive in terms of preparing itself for an outbreak of COVID-19 despite only having 143 cases to date with NO DEATHS. For example, two weeks ago the government carried out an unprecedented "mass casualty" drill in Ulaanbaatar, where an entire district was cordoned off completely for an entire day. The Chingeltei district is home to more than 150,000 people and over 3,500 officials, doctors, and law enforcement personnel participated (in addition to the residents living in the district). Overall, I'm happy about Mongolia's actions; although it means I'll have to wait longer than I'd like to go back to the field, I don't have to worry as much about the health of the people there that I have grown to care about.