ULAANBAATAR: A protester carrying a 2-month-old baby while another holds a sign urging officials of the national emergency commission to resign, during a rally at Sukhbaatar square in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. - AFP

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia: Mongolia's prime minister resigned yesterday following protests and public outrage over the treatment of a coronavirus patient and her newborn baby. Landlocked Mongolia reported just a handful of COVID-19 cases last year after imposing strict border controls, but in November its first domestic transmissions caused a new wave of lockdowns and restrictions.

Anger mounted this week after TV footage showed a woman who appeared to have recently given birth being moved to an infectious disease center wearing only hospital pyjamas and plastic slippers, despite temperatures dipping to minus 25 degrees Celsius. After protests outside government buildings on Wednesday, the Mongolian politician apologized on behalf of the government and said he would stand down immediately. "Unfortunately, we made mistake during relocating that mother," admitted Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa yesterday. "It was heartbreaking to see how she was treated."

"As a prime minister, I must take the responsibility." The video of the woman in an ambulance clutching her baby prompted fierce criticism, particularly as Mongolian tradition dictates new mothers should avoid the cold weather and cold food for the first month after birth. On Wednesday around 5,000 mostly young protesters gathered in a square opposite government buildings in the capital Ulaanbaatar, some carrying wrapped up bundles to represent babies.

Ulziibayar Purevsuren, 30, held a banner reading "resign" and said she was there to complain about "incompetent doctors". The vice prime minister-also head of the national emergency commission handling the pandemic-had already resigned on Wednesday evening, followed by the minister of health. The head of the hospital and disease center in the middle of the row also resigned.

Political instability has been a constant problem for the young Central Asian democracy, which passed its first constitution in 1992 after decades of Communist rule. The outgoing prime minister had already survived a parliament vote to sack him in 2018 over a corruption scandal that implicated high-level politicians in a state fund embezzlement scheme-a year after his predecessor was sacked over allegations of corruption.

As the prime minister stands down, President Battulga Khaltmaa remains in place as head of state. But Khurelsukh has previously said he intends to stand for president in upcoming elections this year, and in his resignation speech he said he had "lost faith" in Battulga as head of state.

'Voices heard'

This week's row is the latest clash over the government's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak as anger simmers over Mongolian nationals stuck overseas after the country closed its borders. "I don't think Mongolians will die of COVID-19, instead they will die of poverty and hunger," said 20-year-old student Odbayar Lkhagvadorj. "We are here to make our voice heard," said Batzul Batenkh, a 21-year-old mining worker.

Restrictions on movement between provinces have been imposed since November, leaving about 80,000 people stranded in the capital. Many have complained of waiting weeks for virus tests to allow them to return to their homes or of having to sleep in their cars with hotels closed due to lockdowns.

Officials were forced to apologize when a 58-year-old woman died in December after being refused entry to a hospital because she did not have a negative COVID-19 test result. Since March, Mongolia has only allowed citizens to enter the country on chartered flights and required 21 days of quarantine in centralized facilities, followed by two weeks of further isolation at home. There have been 1,584 coronavirus cases in the country so far. - AFP