Your Monday Briefing
Good morning. We’re covering Omicron’s rapid spread, Afghanistan’s looming starvation crisis and Syria’s state-supported drug trade.
An international traveler received a coronavirus test in Johannesburg last week.Credit…João Silva/The New York Times
Omicron sows global chaos
The highly mutated variant of the coronavirus has reached almost 50 countries and has been detected in 17 U.S. states.
Scientists in South Africa said Omicron appeared to spread more than twice as quickly as Delta, thanks to a combination of contagiousness and an ability to dodge the body’s immune defenses. A past infection may also offer little defense against Omicron. Here’s what we know so far.
Omicron may have been spreading in New York City well before the W.H.O. even gave it a name, thanks to a 53,000-person anime convention. And Botswana’s leaders said foreign diplomats, who had traveled from Europe, were some of the first known cases.
Research: The Times went inside a cutting edge lab in South Africa, the first country to identify the variant. The country’s high rate of H.I.V. infection may give the virus more chances to mutate.
Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.
In other developments:
China has been discouraging its citizens from traveling throughout the pandemic, suppressing essential tourism revenue across the world.
The U.S. is poised to have more than 200 million people fully vaccinated, and that number is growing fast as fears about Omicron spread.
The Australian Parliament temporarily closed its doors to the public after a fully vaccinated staff member tested positive.
South Korean officials said that they would temporarily reverse a phased reopening as Omicron surfaces.
Auckland, New Zealand, ended its 107-day lockdown.
Afghanistan faces starvation
An estimated 22.8 million people — more than half of Afghanistan’s population — are expected to face potentially life-threatening food insecurity this winter. Of those, 8.7 million are already nearing famine.
The hunger is the most devastating signof the economic crash that has crippled Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power nearly four months ago. Food prices are soaring as families flood into the malnutrition wards of hospitals.
The mass starvation could kill a million children this winter. That alone would dwarf the total number of civilians estimated to have been killed as a direct result of war.
Background: Afghanistan has suffered from malnutrition for decades, but the country’s hunger crisis has drastically worsened without foreign aid money. The U.S. is now facing mounting pressure to ease the economic restrictions on the Taliban that have isolated the country, crippled banks and deepened the crisis.
Environment: Afghanistan is confronting one of the worst droughts in decades. The country’s wheat harvest is expected to be as much as 25 percent below average this year.
Taliban: Leaders are rewarding their fighters with property, even if that means evicting other citizens. The group also issued a decree that bans forced marriages and calls for more rights for women, but it does not say whether they will regain easier access to education or jobs.
Syria turns to illegal drug trade
Powerful associates of President Bashar al-Assad are making and selling captagon, an illegal, addictive amphetamine popular in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Syria has now become the world’s newest narcostate.
The industry, which emerged in the ruins of a decade of war, has grown into a multibillion-dollar operation. Captagon is now the country’s most valuable export, far surpassing legal products.
An investigation by The Times found that much of the production and distribution was overseen by an elite unit of the Syrian army commanded by the president’s younger brother. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is also a major player.
Scale: More than 250 million captagon pills have been seized across the globe so far this year, more than 18 times the amount captured just four years ago.
THE LATEST NEWS
A volcano on the Indonesian island of Java erupted on Saturday, killing at least 14 people and injuring at least 41 others.
Anger is spreading in northeastern India after security forces killed 14 civilians.
Several people died after a military truck rammed into protesters in Myanmar on Sunday.
A Philippine court will allow Maria Ressa to travel to Norway receive her Nobel Peace Prize.
The Middle East
Pope Francis visited Greece and Cyprus to call for empathy and attention to migrants.
Israeli police killed a Palestinian man who stabbed and wounded an Israeli civilian in Jerusalem on Saturday.
European negotiators trying to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal say the new hard-line government is proposing unacceptable changes to the draft agreement.
Around the World
President Biden will hold talks with President Vladimir Putin this week, days after U.S. intelligence revealed that Russia was preparing a possible invasion of Ukraine.
In Uganda, two journalists and a politician say they received alerts warning them of “state-sponsored” hacks. At least one attack appeared to have employed the Israeli-made spyware known as Pegasus.
Brazil’s northeast is becoming a desert as climate change dries out the soil and residents make short-term decisions to stay alive.
Antwerp has become the main port of entry into Europe for cocaine, and the Belgian city is struggling with a surge of violence.
What Else Is Happening
The parents of a Michigan teenager, who were charged with involuntary manslaughter after their son was accused of shooting four classmates in his high school last week, were arrested on Saturday after a manhunt.
CNN fired the anchor Chris Cuomo amid a continuing inquiry into his efforts to help his brother, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, fight sexual harassment accusations.
About 50 days after a volcano exploded in the Canary Islands, a beekeeper discovered that his honeybees had sealed themselves in their hives away from deadly gases and survived on honey.
A 13-year-old from England with a metal detector unearthed a 3,000-year-old ax from the Bronze Age.
A Morning Read
Thousands of U.S. and Japanese soldiers died in the Battle of Biak, a fierce World War II fight. Collectors are still finding remnants on the remote Indonesian island, which could bring solace to the families of U.S. soldiers whose remains are still missing.
ARTS AND IDEAS
Celebrating quitting, on TikTok
Once, broadcasting the decision to quit a job might have seemed unwise, or at least uncouth. But now, many people are celebrating their departures on social media.
They are rejoicing in Instagram reels and posting giddy “QuitToks.” They’re tweeting screenshots of their “I quit” texts to their bosses, or virtually high-fiving on the Reddit forum R/antiwork.
The percentage of U.S. workers voluntarily leaving their jobs reached 3 percent this fall, a historic high. And employers are growing less choosy about who they hire. That may offer some cushion to those punching back at their former bosses.
“People are frustrated, exhausted, triggered,” J.T. O’Donnell, founder of the career coaching platform Work It Daily, said. “When people are triggered, you see fight or flight responses. This is a fight response.”
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to Cook
This raspberry-mochi butter cake with matcha glaze is an unexpectedly easy stir-and-bake dessert.
What to Read
My colleagues recommend these eight self-help books, which have tips on building healthy spaces and parenting in a changing world, and inspiring poems.
What to Watch
“Flee,” a Danish documentary, uses animation to tell the poignant, complicated story of an Afghan refugee.
Now Time to Play
Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
And here is today’s Spelling Bee.
You can find all our puzzles here.
That’s it for today’s briefing. See you next time. — Amelia
P.S. The Times Book Review is asking readers to choose the best book of the past 125 years. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the contest.
The latest episode of “The Daily” is about the legacy of Stephen Sondheim.
You can reach Amelia and the team at [email protected]. Send us your feedback.