Your Monday Briefing

Shoppers on Oxford Street in London yesterday. Credit…Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Omicron cases rise in Europe

Dozens of new cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus were reported in Britain and Denmark yesterday, adding to increases across Europe and fueling fears that the variant had already spread widely. Though some European countries have imposed travel restrictions, it is unclear how much they will be able to curb transmission.

The highly mutated variant of the virus has reached almost 50 countries and has been detected in 17 American 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. Here’s what we know so far.

The precise origins of the variant remain unknown. Some of the first cases to be detected in Botswana — among the first known in the world — were in foreign diplomats who had traveled to the country from Europe, the country’s president said. Infections at a New York anime convention suggest that it may have been spreading in the U.S. before it had a name.

Research: The Times went inside a cutting-edge lab in South Africa, which is on the front lines in the world’s battle against the evolving coronavirus.

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, a number that is growing fast as fears about Omicron spread.

  • Switzerland removed the obligation for some foreign visitors to quarantine for 10 days upon arrival after the requirement, which was imposed just a week ago, created havoc in the country’s tourism industry.

Italian law enforcement officers seized 14 tons of captagon, about 84 million pills, at the port of Salerno last year.Credit…Ciro Fusco/EPA, via Shutterstock

Syria turns to illegal drug trade

Powerful associates of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, are making and selling captagon, an illegal, addictive amphetamine popular in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Syria has become the world’s newest narcostate, and captagon is the country’s most valuable export, far surpassing legal products.

The drug trade, which emerged in the ruins 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 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.

Pope Francis meeting migrants yesterday.Credit…Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

An ‘indifference that kills’

Pope Francis, returning to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, yesterday spoke out against the limited progress made in helping migrants. “Five years have passed since I visited this place,” he said. “After all this time, we see that little has changed with regard to the issue of migration.”

His remarks came at the end of a five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece meant to renew focus on migration, an issue he has never wavered on, even as the world’s attention has faltered. When the world has paid attention, it has usually been in a way opposite to how he had hoped, with migrant flows fueling nationalist and populist surges across Europe.

Francis argued yesterday that the intractable reality of the issue exposed both the failure of stopgap measures and the need for a coordinated global response. He denounced an “indifference that kills” in Europe, which he said had shown a “cynical disregard that nonchalantly condemns to death those on the fringes.”

Pandemic effects: Stringent restrictions were in place for Francis’ visit. A maximum of 160 migrants were admitted into the tent in which he spoke. All were required to be vaccinated and have tested negative as an extra precaution.


Around the World

Credit…Trisnadi/Associated Press
  • A volcano on the Indonesian island of Java erupted on Saturday, killing at least 14 people and injuring at least 41 others.

  • Several people died after a military truck rammed into protesters in Myanmar yesterday.

  • An estimated 22.8 million people — more than half the population of Afghanistan — are expected to face potentially life-threatening food insecurity this winter.

Other Big Stories

Credit…Andriy Dubchak/Associated Press
  • With a force of 175,000 Russian troops poised to be near Ukraine by next year, in what Western officials fear could presage an invasion, centuries of shared history loom large. President Biden will hold talks with Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, this week.

  • This map shows where abortion access would decline in the U.S. if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

What Else Is Happening

  • A 13-year-old from England with a metal detector unearthed a 3,000-year-old Bronze Age ax.

  • At least one bat species carries its young to an unsupervised drop-off point night after night, a new study has found.

A Morning Read

Credit…Elías González, La Palma Bee Keepers Association, via EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

For roughly 50 days after a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands in September, thousands of honeybees sealed themselves away from deadly gas in their hives and feasted on honey. “It is a very empowering story,” one entomologist said.

Lives Lived

Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader from Kansas — who grew up in Dust Bowl deprivation and suffered grievous wounds during World War II — died yesterday at 98. Read his full Times obituary.


Easing the mental toll of an evolving pandemic

We had just come to grips with Delta when Omicron came along, bringing with it a sweeping wave of anxiety.

The scientific understanding of the coronavirus is constantly changing and so, too, is the virus itself. As we continue to ride the pandemic roller coaster, learning tocope withour unpredictable world is not only possible but necessary.

Meditation can help calm an agitated mind that swings from thought to thought, a mental state Buddhists refer to as “monkey mind,” said Tim Olmsted, a practitioner of 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. “Attending to our mind — letting it rest and refresh — is actually the most consequential thing we can do.” If you have never meditated before, there are many sources to help you start, including apps and retreats. Our guide to meditation has tips on how to achieve “greater equanimity, acceptance and joy.”

Read more tips for managing uncertainty in the pandemic.


What to Cook

Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times

Start your week with brown-butter orzo with butternut squash.

What to Read

“The Anomaly,” a runaway best seller in France, lies in that exciting Venn diagram where high entertainment meets serious literature, our critic writes.

What to Watch

The prognosis is bright in our third annual ranking of Netflix’s original Christmas films.

Now Time to Play

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Sauce made with mayonnaise (five letters).

And here is the Spelling Bee.

You can find all our puzzles here.

That’s it for today’s briefing. Thanks for joining me. — Natasha

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 Natasha and the team at [email protected].

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