Your Wednesday Briefing: Omicron in Europe

We’re covering the “tidal wave” of the Omicron variant in Europe and reactions to U.S.-Russia talks in Ukraine.

The World Health Organization warned of “a new west-to-east tidal wave sweeping across the region.” In the next six to eight weeks, more than half of people in Europe could be infected with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the U.N. agency said.

The Continent “saw over seven million cases of Covid-19 in the first week of 2022, more than doubling over a two-week period,” Dr. Hans Kluge, the W.H.O. regional director for Europe, said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The W.H.O. cautioned against treating the latest wave like the seasonal flu, since much remains unknown about the new variant — particularly regarding the severity of the disease in areas with lower vaccination rates.

Problem areas: The Omicron spread could be especially troubling for Eastern Europe, where vaccination rates are much lower than in Western Europe. Omicron is just starting to spread widely in the Balkans.

Vaccines: Despite the widespread level of infection, data from Denmark suggests how effective vaccines remain. The hospitalization rate for unvaccinated people was “sixfold higher than for those who were fully vaccinated in the week over Christmas,” Kluge said.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other developments:

After talks with the U.S., Russia will sit down with NATO today and with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday. The O.S.C.E. talks will include Russia and Ukraine, the first recent meeting to feature both countries.

During the meeting on Monday in Geneva with American negotiators, the Russian deputy foreign minister declared, “We have no intention to invade Ukraine.” But Ukrainians were quick to discount the pledge, and Ukrainian analysts predicted that Russia would emerge from the week of talks without having offered any concessions.

“When Russians say, ‘No, no, no, we don’t want to invade Ukraine’ what they mean is, ‘Yes, yes, yes, we do want to invade Ukraine,’” said Oksana Syroid, a former deputy speaker of Parliament.

Ukraine’s foreign minister offered a positive assessment of the meeting, emphasizing that the talks made clear that the U.S. would not negotiate on security guarantees that Russia wants until Moscow withdraws its forces from the Ukrainian border.

Latest on the border: Russian and Belarusian jet fighters carried out joint flights near Ukraine, and Russia’s western military district announced a live-fire exercise with 3,000 soldiers.

Kazakhstan: The Kazakh president announced that a Russian-led military alliance would begin withdrawing its troops from Kazakhstan in two days. But Russia’s defense minister left it unclear when the troops would actually go home.

The U.N. asked international donors for $5 billion to fend off a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan.

Five months after the Taliban seized power, a severe drought and the toll of decades of war have plunged three-quarters of the country’s population into acute poverty, according to the U.N., which said it was starting its biggest appeal ever for a single country.

The new appeal will test donors’ willingness to support Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

“A full-blown humanitarian catastrophe looms,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s emergency aid coordinator, said. Without international aid, a million children face acute hunger and another eight million people face “a march to starvation, and ultimately even possible famine,” he continued.

Around the World

What did Catherine de’ Medici, Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots have in common? They all used letterlocking to protect their handwritten correspondence from snoops and spies. The 16th-century technique is seen as a precursor to modern encryption. A recent paper details what researchers have learned about the locked letters in two decades of study.

Lives lived: David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament, died at 65. A well-known journalist in Italy before going into politics, he had worked to raise the Parliament’s profile.

A growing number of economists argue that technology, with a hand from policymakers, has contributed significantly to the widening gaps in incomes in the U.S.

In economic theory, technology is almost a magic ingredient that both increases the size of the economic pie and makes nations richer. But about a decade ago, while doing research, Daron Acemoglu, an M.I.T. economist, had second thoughts.

As Acemoglu dug deeply into economic and demographic data, the displacement effects of technology became increasingly apparent. “They were greater than I assumed,” he said. “It’s made me less optimistic about the future.”

Today, he sees too much investment in “so-so technologies,” which replace workers but do not yield big gains in productivity. As examples, he cites self-checkout kiosks in grocery stores and automated customer service over the phone. By contrast, truly significant technologies create new jobs elsewhere, lifting employment and wages.

Acemoglu also believes that technology development should be steered in a more “human-friendly direction.” He takes inspiration from the development of renewable energy over the last two decades, which has been helped by government research, production subsidies and social pressure on corporations to reduce carbon emissions.

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