Your Wednesday Briefing: Omicron Restrictions

We’re covering Asia-Pacific approaches to Omicron and progress in India’s ambitious water-access plan.

Getting the Covishield vaccine outside Ahmedabad, India.Credit…Amit Dave/Reuters

Asia’s Omicron playbook

As the Omicron coronavirus wave crashes through Europe and the United States, countries in Asia are all over the map with their containment approaches.

Heightening the urgency, data shows that Asia’s most widely used vaccines — including those made by AstraZeneca, Sinovac and Sinopharm — show no ability to stop Omicron infections six months after vaccination. (Most vaccines still seem to provide a significant degree of protection against serious illness from Omicron.)

New Zealand said on Tuesday that it was pushing back a phased opening of its borders to the end of February. It has detected 22 cases of Omicron in international arrivals but no community spread. In the event of an outbreak, the government intends to replace the lockdowns of the past with more targeted measures, the Covid minister said. It is also speeding up booster shots and bringing back quarantine for Kiwis returning home.

Other countries in the Asia-Pacific region are taking their own approaches.

India has not announced new rules but told governors to be on alert, as Omicron cases have multiplied quickly. Ninety percent of vaccinated people in India received the AstraZeneca vaccine, under the brand name Covishield.

China has doubled down on its strict, zero-Covid strategy, with new quarantines and border restrictions in the regions where Omicron has been identified. In one of the hardest-hit areas, Zhejiang province, thousands of people were placed under quarantine and some businesses were closed last week, according to CNN. Beijing is hosting the Winter Olympics in less than two months.

Japan, which closed its borders to visitors last month, asked a U.S. military base in Okinawa that is experiencing an outbreak to put more Covid restrictions in place. Thailand paused its quarantine-free travel program. And Indonesia restricted travel from nations in Europe and Africa.

Australia, in a departure from its earlier Covid strategies, has no plans for lockdowns now. “We’re not going back to shutting down people’s lives,” the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.

In other developments:

  • President Biden announced a new plan on Tuesday to confront the Omicron surge, including distribution of 500 million no-cost rapid tests.

  • The European Union said boosters would be required for its vaccine passports.

  • France discovered 180,000 fake Covid passes, and the Italian authorities arrested people accused of selling false vaccination documents.

  • Britain will offer $1.3 billion in aid to hospitality and leisure businesses after a wave of cancellations and closures.

The Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces honors the military. Its floors are made from weapons and tanks seized from the German Wehrmacht. Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The Kremlin militarizes Russian society

Over the past eight years, the Russian government has promoted the idea that the country is surrounded by enemies. It has enforced that message in schools, the military, the news media and the Orthodox Church, and glorified the memory of Russian strength in World War II.

Now, as Russia masses troops on the Ukrainian border, the steady militarization of society under President Vladimir Putin looms large, and appears to have inured many to the idea that a fight could be coming.

Speaking to Russian military leaders on Tuesday, Putin insisted that Russia did not want bloodshed, but was prepared to respond with “military-technical measures” to the West. State TV is portraying all of Russia’s efforts in Ukraine as defensive maneuvers.

Some of the latest propaganda tactics include a $185 million four-year program started by the Kremlin this year that aims to drastically increase Russians’ “patriotic education,” including a plan to attract at least 600,000 children as young as 8 to join the ranks of a uniformed Youth Army.

Quotable: “The authorities are actively selling the idea of war,” Dmitri A. Muratov, a Russian newspaper editor who shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, said in his acceptance speech. “People are getting used to the thought of its permissibility.”

The latest: Vice President Kamala Harris said that the U.S. would impose sanctions on Russia “like you’ve not seen before” if it invaded Ukraine. She told CBS that the White House was making that clear in direct discussions with Putin.

The village of Imlidol, India, is awaiting tap water installation under the Jal Jeevan Mission.Credit…Saumya Khandelwal for The New York Times

India’s ambitious water-access plan

India, one of the world’s most water-stressed countries, is halfway through an ambitious drive to provide clean tap water by 2024 to the 192 million households who live in its 600,000 villages.

Thousands of government engineers are working on the $50 billion project to install taps in every home. It’s also providing jobs for contractors and laborers who are laying millions of miles of pipes.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi considers the project crucial and has slashed through bureaucratic red tape to help. It’s also personal: Modi has spoken emotionally about his own mother’s hardship in fetching water when he was growing up.

His success thus far helps explain his dominance over the country’s political landscape and his high approval rating. Some have criticized the program’s lack of focus on water conservation.

The numbers: Only about one-sixth of India’s households had a clean water tap when the program, called Jal Jeevan Mission, began in 2019. Now, almost half have one. Nearly 40 million Indian people are affected by waterborne diseases every year.


Asia Pacific

Taliban fighters guard the last checkpoint outside of Bagram Prison.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times
  • Aphotographer visited the abandoned Bagram Air Base, once the site of a notorious prison in Afghanistan. It once held thousands of Taliban and Qaeda members, who were set free in August.

  • The death toll from the strongest typhoon in the Philippines this year climbed to 375, according to CNN. Many provinces are still dealing with communication blackouts and downed power lines.

Around the World

Turkey has been supplying the Ethiopian government with drones. A drone pictured in Turkey in May.Credit…Leszek Szymanski/EPA, via Shutterstock
  • A stunning military victory this month for Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, was made possible by combat drones provided by foreign allies.

  • A group of kidnapped missionaries in Haiti said they escaped in a daring late-night breakout.

  • Times Opinion looked at the 41 most important and absurd debates of the year. (Read more about the project in the Opinion Today newsletter.)

  • The White House has a new resident: Commander, a 3-month-old German shepherd with large, pointy ears.

A Morning Read

Anna Layza makes a TikTok video at her home in Melbourne, Fla.Credit…Todd Anderson for The New York Times

Brands are pouring money into TikTok for advertising campaigns, drawn by its more than 1 billion users and powerful algorithm. “The growth that we’ve seen is insane,” said Krishna Subramanian, a founder of the influencer marketing firm Captiv8, where roughly a dozen employees are focused on TikTok.


Credit…Clockwise from top left: Reuters, The New York Times, AFP, The New York Times, AFP, Reuters.

The faces of 2021

The New York Times Faces Quiz offers a chance to see how well you know some of the defining personalities of 2021. Give us the name that matches each face. (And, yes, the quiz is lenient on spelling.)

Play it here and see how well you do compared with other Times readers.


What to Cook

Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times

This creamy vegetarian soup features cauliflower, potatoes and white beans.

What to Watch

Among the thousands of hours of television this year, a few episodes — from “Call My Agent,” “WandaVision” and more — stood out.


Why we collect clutter, and what to do about it.

Now Time to Play

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Month with the longest day of the year (four letters).

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. — Melina

P.S. Matina Stevis-Gridneff is our new Brussels bureau chief.

The latest episode of “The Daily” is about the U.S. senator Joe Manchin.

You can reach Melina and the team at [email protected].

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