Dozens of new cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus were reported in the UK and Denmark yesterday, causing a surge across Europe and fears that the variant was already widespread. Although some European countries have imposed travel restrictions, it is unclear how much they can curb transmission.
The heavily mutated variant of the virus has reached nearly 50 countries and has been detected in 17 American states. Scientists in South Africa said Omicron appeared to spread more than twice as fast as Delta thanks to a combination of contagion and the ability to evade the body’s immune defences. Here’s what we know so far.
The exact origin of the variant remains unknown. Some of the first cases discovered in Botswana – among the first known worldwide – were among foreign diplomats who had entered the country from Europe, the country’s president said. Infection at an anime convention in New York suggests it may have spread to the US before it had a name.
Research: The Times stepped into a state-of-the-art laboratory in South Africa that is at the forefront of the global battle against the developing coronavirus.
Syria is turning to illicit drug trafficking
Powerful employees of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad manufacture and sell Captagon, an illegal, addictive amphetamine popular in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Syria has become the world’s newest drug, and Captagon is the country’s most valuable export, far surpassing legal products.
The drug trafficking that grew up in the wreckage of a decade of war has grown into a multibillion-dollar operation. An investigation by the Times found that much of the production and distribution was overseen by an elite unit of the Syrian army under the command of the president’s younger brother. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is also an important factor.
Scale: More than 250 million Captagon pills have been seized worldwide this year, more than 18 times the amount seized four years ago.
An “indifference that kills”
Pope Francis, who yesterday returned to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, spoke out yesterday against the limited progress made in helping migrants. “It has been five years since I visited this place,” he said. “After all this time, we can see that little has changed on the subject of migration.”
His remarks came at the end of a five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece to refocus the focus on migration, an issue on which he has never wavered, even as the world’s attention has waned. When the world has been paying attention it has usually been different than he had hoped, as flows of migrants fueled nationalist and populist upsurges across Europe.
Francis argued yesterday that the persistent reality of the problem exposed both the failure of emergency measures and the need for a coordinated global response. He denounced an “indifference that kills” in Europe, which in his view shows a “cynical disregard that nonchalantly condemns the marginalized to death”.
Pandemic Effects: Strict restrictions were placed on Francis’ visit. A maximum of 160 migrants were admitted into the tent in which he spoke. All had to be vaccinated and tested negative as an extra precaution.
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Around 50 days after a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands in September, thousands of honey bees sealed themselves from the deadly gas in their hives and feasted on honey. “It’s a very encouraging story,” said one entomologist.
Bob Dole, the former Kansas Senate majority leader – who grew up in Dust Bowl hardship and suffered severe wounds during World War II – died yesterday at the age of 98. Read his full obituary in the Times.
ART AND IDEAS
Alleviating the mental toll of an evolving pandemic
We had just dealt with Delta when Omicron showed up, bringing with it a wave of fear.
The scientific understanding of the coronavirus is constantly changing and with it the virus itself. As we continue to ride the pandemic roller coaster, we learn to dealing with our unpredictable world is not only possible, it is necessary.
Meditation can help calm an agitated mind that swings from thought to thought, a state of mind Buddhists refer to as the “monkey mind,” said Tim Olmsted, who has practised meditation for nearly 50 years. It teaches us that while there will always be external stressors, we don’t need to be dominated by those problems, he said.
“We can still find resilience and peace,” he continued. “Taking care of our minds – resting and refreshing them – is actually the most consistent thing we can do.” If you’ve never meditated before, there are many sources to get you started, including apps and retreats. Our meditation guide contains tips on how to achieve “more equanimity, acceptance, and joy”.