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What We’re Watching: Biden’s omicron message, Ukraine invasion rumblings, Haitian migrants sue US, China hearts US natural gas – GZERO Media

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Biden’s omicron message to America. It’s fair to assume that many Americans were anxious to hear what President Biden had to say at a presser Tuesday about the omicron variant ripping through US cities. So what did the commander-in-chief tell the huddling masses? First, he stuck to the White House script, reiterating that vaccinations, boosters, and masks are crucial to minimizing risk from omicron. Second, he reassured parents that schools will stay open despite the surge. There’s other good stuff in the works too: 1,000 military personnel will be deployed to help strained hospitals, and the government will purchase half a billion COVID tests that Americans will be able to order to their homes for free. That’s great, but this scheme won’t be ramped up until January, several weeks into a surge that many analysts say was highly predictable and that the White House should have prepared for. Current testing failures have been particularly problematic in hard-hit New York City, where cases have risen 80 percent in two weeks. But the Biden administration has still failed to offer guidance for 15 million Americans who received an initial single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot, which scientists say doesn’t offer much protection against omicron. Biden’s message was clear: this isn’t March 2020, go celebrate the holidays with your families. But did he convince millions of very worried Americans?
US-Russia standoff: Rattling or Rolling? Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that if NATO continues to be “obviously aggressive” in Ukraine, the Kremlin would respond with unspecified “military-technical means,” stressing that Russia’s sovereignty is at stake. On the same day, his Defense Minister warned that the US was planning a false flag chemical weapons attack in Ukraine. For a while now, Russian state TV has been riling up nationalist sentiment in evening news monologues. That all seems bad… And yet it seems that beneath the headline fury, diplomacy is slowly wheeling onwards. The US and Russia are set for bilateral talks in January, and there will be NATO-Russia and Russia-EU engagements alongside that. Those talks will focus on what, precisely, Putin is doing with the 100,000 troops he’s massed along the Ukrainian border, and whether there is any agreement to be teased out on the basis of the Kremlin’s recently-released list of maximalist demands from NATO. Those demands would all but turn back the clock to 1997, before NATO expanded into the former Soviet sphere, and deny the right of countries in Eastern Europe to join the alliance if they wish. Those are non-starters for the alliance, but the demands seem to have been an opening position rather than a final one. The US and EU are still threatening to impose crippling economic and financial sanctions on Russia if Moscow does decide to invade Ukraine again. This story will be a big one in January. Hopefully no holiday surprises.

Haitian asylum-seekers vs US government. You might recall these confronting images of US border agents on horses in the Texas border town of Del Rao, using their reins as whips to corral Black migrants trying to enter the US from Mexico. Now a group of Haitian asylum-seekers has filed a lawsuit against the US government for poor treatment and denial of due process, accusing the Biden administration of unfairly keeping in place a Trump-era policy of expelling most migrants on elastic public health grounds. The plaintiffs also say they weren’t given enough food and water while in the US’ care. The accusers, who were deported, are requesting that they be allowed to stay in the US while their applications are processed. Central American migrants have been arriving at the US southern border in record numbers this year because of pandemic-related economic hardships – as have Haitians who are trying to flee a collapsing state. Immigration has been a lightning-rod issue for President Biden during his first year: while most Americans support his tough-on-border approach, it has alienated progressives, a key part of his broad constituency.
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With the omicron COVID variant fast conquering every corner of the globe, people and governments are once again forced to make difficult decisions about pandemic policy and personal behavior. Borders are closing and testing sites are overwhelmed.

But is there something different about this wave from previous ones? We sat down with Eurasia Group public health expert Scott Rosenstein to get some perspective.
Scott, let’s start with the basics. What do we know about 0micron, and what don’t we know?
There are three big questions, and we have a decent understanding around two of them.
First, transmissibility — it’s spreading far and wide, and it’s hard to see anything that will stop that. It’s quickly outcompeting delta in the US, UK, Denmark, and likely many other countries in the coming weeks.
Second, vaccines – all of the vaccines, but particularly the mRNA ones, still seem to reduce the risk of severe illness and death even without a booster (though less so than with earlier variants.) But they are struggling mightily against a highly contagious variant that can take hold in your nose before your immune system even has time to respond. An mRNA booster (and possibly others) should restore some protection against even mild infection and transmission, but for how long is unclear.
Third, severity — the most hotly debated and poorly understood question of the three. There’s already a cottage industry of hot takes out there. My lukewarm take has always been that this question would take the longest to answer and will require a ton of caveats — we still can’t even really answer it conclusively with delta. And delta showed lower rates of hospitalization and death per case in places with high levels of vaccination or previous infection, even if the variant itself likely isn’t fundamentally less severe.

For omicron, that could also be the case. It does, however, seem like South Africa is experiencing a less severe outbreak. And there is evidence that it replicates less well in the lungs. Both of those things are positive signals, but the reality is that we just don’t know yet and won’t for at least a few more weeks with data from other countries.
South Africa seems to have peaked fast, is that likely to be the same elsewhere?
We should be very careful about generalizing South Africa’s experience — the demographic and epidemiological profile there is very specific. A fast rise and similarly precipitous drop certainly isn’t out of the question in many places, but remember: delta is still bouncing around twelve months after it was first identified, and it spread way faster than earlier variants. There’s isn’t going to be one timeline for all countries or regions within countries.
Does the timing and nature of omicron change the kinds of political challenges that governments face in dealing with it?
We’re two years into an already exhausting and painful pandemic. The longer this drags on the more politically divisive it becomes, which undermines coordinated and evidence-based policymaking. Broadly, rich countries may be able to cushion the blow of additional disruptions with more fiscal stimulus, but the political environment for making that happen continues to deteriorate. Less wealthy countries don’t even have that luxury.
Right. What about stuff like vaccine mandates, lockdowns, and schools?

Many countries have decided that vaccine mandates are the best of a bad set of options to curb spread. That position won’t likely change, but it’s going to get more complicated with questions around what constitutes “fully vaccinated” and what vaccines qualify under the mandates.
Schools is a touchy issue. Some are likely going to be able to stay open safely, thanks to tests, ventilation, vaccination, and small class sizes. But not all of them, and a blanket policy to keep all schools open would overlook the lower-resourced ones where a lot of kids are returning home to multi-generational households where the grandparents are the caregivers because the parents need to work and can’t do it over Zoom.
What did you make of President Biden’s omicron speech on Tuesday?
It’s hard to figure out who exactly he is trying to reach at this point since so many people have dug in on their respective positions. He’s right to point out the risks to the unvaccinated but shaming them probably won’t move the needle that much and could embolden the vaccine opposition. Bolstering healthcare capacity with federal resources including the military should help hard-hit areas. But if things get bad in too many places that may be more of a band-aid on a gaping wound. And sending 500 million tests to people’s homes is a great idea — for twelve months ago. The consistent underperformance on testing remains a big unforced error for the US public health response. Better late than never I guess.
Is there a world in which Omicron gets us faster to the endemic nuisance stage of the pandemic?
That world exists. I wouldn’t expect to wake up in it in the coming weeks. That best-case scenario remains possible in the medium term: i.e. this variant results in much less hospital strain than previous waves, and builds a wall of immunity against severe illness high enough to keep hospitals from overflowing again.

“If it bleeds it leads” is a common saying in journalism. But one of the interesting things about this pandemic is that there is also an incredible demand for good news, and that can lead (again) to a false sense of security and mission accomplished bias. So we should be careful not to smoke too much of that sweet sweet hopium™.
Did 2021 actually happen, or are we still stuck in 2020? So many things seem to have barely changed this year. After all, we’re entering yet another holiday season worried about a fresh wave of the pandemic, and uncertain about what comes next for our economies and our politics.
In a lot of ways, the past 365 days feel like a year of unfulfilled promise. Let’s have a look back at what did, and did not happen in 2021.
The year kicked off with US democracy in deep trouble: first the Capitol insurrection, and later Donald Trump’s second impeachment over it. After Joe Biden was inaugurated as president, he told the world: America is back. (Spoiler: the world is still waiting.)
Global attention soon turned to the COVID vaccine rollout. It sputtered at first, but even when it got better it exposed deep divisions over things like health passes, vaccine mandates, and patent waivers. The vaccination gap between the rich world and everyone else was hard to ignore. Still, to have inoculated half the world’s population in under a year is no mean feat.
Middle East politics got hot again with a brief war between Israel and Hamas, Iran’s presidential “election,” and Bibi Netanyahu ousted as Israeli PM after 12 tumultuous years.
Then came a series of extreme weather events that focused everyone’s attention on climate change just months ahead of the COP26 climate summit. But first, the world watched in disbelief as the US chaotically withdrew from Afghanistan, and then the Taliban reclaimed power virtually overnight — right before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Like in 2020, global cooperation was hard to come by, as we saw a bit at UNGA but much more at COP26. The fact that even faced with such an existential problem, the world’s top polluters failed to agree on the same deadline for net zero emissions revealed again how fragmented global politics have become. Forget G20 or G7 — we live in a rudderless, G-Zero world.
In such crazy times, arguably the smoothest political transition came after the German election, with Angela Merkel handing over the reins after 16 years as chancellor — and Europe’s de-facto leader — to Olaf Scholz.
And now, as the end of the year approaches, we are about to mark the 30th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse worrying about whether Vladimir Putin actually intends to invade Ukraine.
More broadly, there are three things that didn’t really play out as many people expected they would at the start of the year.
First, US-China ties didn’t get quite as bad as many feared. With Biden in the White House, the world’s two largest economies didn’t exactly bury the hatchet. They remain at odds over trade, technology, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and Xinjiang. But they did find some common ground on climate — and domestic distractions for both countries helped quiet the rumblings of a new Cold War. (Not to mention a hot war, which as retired US Adm. James Stavridis told us, could start over Taiwan.)
The arrested development of deteriorating relations wasn’t the product of anybody’s grand design. Biden began his presidency with big foreign-policy ambitions, but he soon got bogged down at home by squabbling among Democrats over his domestic agenda, and later by Afghanistan. Xi Jinping, for his part, showed more interest in further consolidating his own power over tech giants, the Chinese economy, and the ruling Communist Party than in picking fights with Biden.
Whether the Cold Peace will hold in 2022 will likely depend on what happens inside each country, especially if they really start to recover from the pandemic.
Second, 2021 was the year of the vaccine, but the jabs on their own didn’t end COVID. The good news is that vaccines were successful at bringing down deaths and severe illnesses. The bad news is that distribution was unequal, and hesitancy higher than expected in some places.
Where access to jabs was lacking, the delta variant brought a more deadly wave, like the one that ravaged India for weeks. (We spoke to Indian journalist Barkha Dutt the day after her own father had succumbed to the virus.) Now we are waiting to see how effective the current jabs are the face of omicron.
Finally, the post-pandemic recovery was not what we hoped for — mainly because we never made it to the “post-pandemic” at all. Even where economic growth rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, the lingering virus messed up supply chains (check out Ian Bremmer’s explainer), drove up the prices of food, energy, and pretty much everything else.
US economist Larry Summers told us why he sounded the alarm bell on inflation earlier in the year. We also learned from LSE’s Minouche Shafik about how women bore the brunt of the unequal pandemic recovery.
It’s been a disappointing year, but one way in which 2020 mirrors 2021 is that we end the year with fresh hope. Last year we looked forward to the arrival of the vaccine to change things. This year we look ahead to 2022 hoping that the current pandemic wave may be the last major one. Let’s see how our optimism fares this time around.
And just like that, omicron is everywhere in the US. The COVID variant, barely known just a few weeks ago, now accounts for three-quarters of all cases in America, and has quickly outpaced the once-dominant delta. Cases are spreading like wildfire, particularly in Florida, Washington DC, New York, and New Jersey — all of which have recorded massive hikes in recent days. We take a look at what percentage of all cases in the US are now from omicron, as well as the change in daily COVID cases nationwide.
Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week on Omicron, Putin’s antics, and Chile’s millennial president.
With Omicron cases increasing, is December 2021 really any different than December 2020?
Of course, it’s different. You know why it’s different? Because so many more people are vaccinated and so many people have already gotten COVID, which means the likelihood that they’re going to be severely hospitalized or die goes way, way down. So we should be worrying less individually about COVID even though the policy impact the shutdown impact for at least a few weeks is going to be very significant. And of course, if you haven’t gotten your boosters, get those boosters. Of course if you’re not vaccinated, I don’t know what a booster’s going to do for you. Why am I even telling you that?

Why is Putin threatening a military response to NATO?
Well, I mean, first of all, it’s kind of what he does, right? I mean, it does sort of go with the job, when you interview for it you have to be willing to threaten a military response to NATO. Secondly, because he controls the media in Russia and they are trying to justify a escalated, recently escalated, military stance. As well as willing to take a more hawkish position against the Ukrainians. And that means you have to justify that NATO is doing stuff against you. And so they’ve been saying that NATOs sending sort of illicit forces in South Ukraine with chemical weapons capabilities. They’re saying that genocide is being perpetrated by the Ukrainians against ethnic Russians. None of this is true, but if you’re Russian and all you get for media is Russian state media you actually believe that war is being planned and it’s coming from the West. And so in that regard, Putin’s ginning up a lot of hostility. What he is going to do with it, of course, is a question for the next couple months. We will see. Certainly it seems like Putin is planning on escalating. I don’t think that means invasion, but I do think it means activity against the Ukrainians. We will see what that means.
With Chile electing its youngest president ever, what’s next for the country?
Well, I mean, they’ll spend a lot more money and they will improve public services. It seemed, I mean, last week an election was hitting both the far left and the far right candidates were moderating their stances to get votes. And that appears to be consistent with the statements that this guy Boric has been making in the days since he’s been elected. But this is a huge shift from the wealthiest of South American countries that had been very comfortable with center right policy orientations, it’s also got much more unequal. And so this is big backlash and that’s why they’re redoing the constitution, which is also being controlled by leftist coalition, and it’s who the next president is in Chile. So lots afoot in a country that’s usually kind of boring and we like it that way.

9: Starting in February, the EU’s digital COVID passes will be valid to travel within the bloc for just nine months after the first round of vaccination. The validity can be extended for those who get a booster shot, though the European Commission has not said how long the extension will last.
1.75: A fistfight broke out on the floor of Ghana’s parliament during a debate over a proposed 1.75 percent tax on electronic transactions. The government says the levy will raise money to pay for social spending programs, while the opposition says it’ll mostly affect poor Ghanaians who use mobile payments and don’t have bank accounts.
730 million: Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum must pay his ex-wife and two children around $734 million, in the largest divorce settlement ever awarded by a UK court. Princess Haya — the sheikh’s sixth wife and daughter of Jordan’s late King Hussein — claims she was under surveillance throughout the high-profile case.
Diwan Cafe’s coffee comes exclusively from the slopes of the Haraz Mountains, often considered the birthplace of coffee. The coffee has a distinct flavor — with notes of cardamom and rich dark roast, each cup is brewed on the spot.
Yemen produced a much larger amount of coffee than it does today, since a recent civil war has significantly limited the production and exportation of coffee. Café owner Wisam Hatem explains that the easiest way to get the beans is to have family and friends bring back large quantities from Yemen. Wisam and his family also organize charity events and drives to support their loved ones back home.
Watch the GZERO World episode: Caught in the crossfire: Yemen’s forgotten war

Boric wins in Chile. In the end, it wasn’t even close. Faced with two diametrically opposed choices for president in Sunday’s presidential runoff, more than 55 percent of Chilean voters went with leftwinger Gabriel Boric instead of his far-right opponent José Antonio Kast. The ten-point gap was so wide that Kast conceded before the count was even done. Boric, 35, now becomes the youngest president of any major nation in the world. Elected just two years after mass protests over inequality shook what was one of Latin America’s most reliably boring and prosperous countries, Boric has promised to raise taxes in order to boost social spending, nationalize the pension system, and expand the rights of indigenous Chileans. But with the country’s legislature evenly split between parties of the left and the center-right, the new president will likely have to compromise on his sweeping pledge to make Chile the land where neoliberalism “goes to its grave.”
Joe sinks Joe. It looks like US President Joe Biden has come to the end of the road with his $1.75 trillion Build Back Better Plan, now that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has announced flatly he’ll vote “no.” With the Senate split 50-50, Biden needs every Democrat vote in the chamber. The White House haggled with Manchin for months — “dancin’ for Manchin”, you might say. Biden even cut the proposed spending in half. But the moderate Manchin said he still “couldn’t get there” because of concerns about the deficit, and further stoking already high inflation. Republicans, of course, are ecstatic, because passing BBB is Biden’s key pitch for Americans to vote for Democrats in next year’s midterms and re-elect him (or another Democrat in his place) in 2024. It’s not too late to reach a fresh compromise on the bill, but the longer the Dems keep squabbling, the longer their odds of retaining control of Congress next November.
Russia makes its demands. With 100,000 Russian troops at the Ukrainian border, Moscow released a bombshell list of demands for the “West” on Friday. Among other things, NATO must relinquish any right ever to expand further eastward, and must stop sending its troops or ships anywhere that could conceivably threaten Russia. What’s more, the Russians are impatient: they want the US to discuss these proposals right now. The US is happy to talk, but won’t give the Kremlin a veto over the choices that sovereign nations want to make about their own security alliances. The Ukrainians, naturally, agree, and on Monday President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will meet with his counterparts from Poland and Lithuania to emphasize the point. We’re watching to see what the US comes back with — one version of a maximalist response would look like this — and what, precisely, Russia is prepared to do if it doesn’t like what it sees.
For Beijing, there is thunder Down Under. Tensions between Australia and China just keep rising. After China responded to Aussie requests for a COVID investigation by imposing devastating tariffs and unofficial bans on Australian exports in 2020, Oz is pushing back hard now. Canberra on Friday accused China of “economic coercion,” while cybersecurity officials publicly confirmed malicious attacks against Australia by Chinese spy services working with Chinese telecom giant Huawei. The Aussies also say Chinese intelligence vessels are snooping around in Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. These accompany several clearly pro-American moves this year: the Aussies have signed on to AUKUS, an exclusive military club with Washington and London that gives them access to unprecedented weapons tech, are allowing the buildup of US military infrastructure (read, bases) on its soil, and joined America in a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. But the Australians are taking the tensions directly to China’s neighborhood, too. Canberra just signed a $770 million weapons deal with South Korea, including tech to build Howitzers — really, really big artillery guns. And even though the spat between the two continues, there is evidence that Australia, while heavily dependent on trade with China, is successfully pushing for diversity in trade partnerships.

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