A worrying virus variant in Britain
European countries began closing their borders to travelers from the United Kingdom a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a lockdown on London and most of England’s southeast. The British leader said the restrictions were necessary to curb a new, faster-spreading variant of the coronavirus.
London travel hubs were packed in the hours after he announced the new measures, which are the harshest since Britain’s first lockdown in March.
On Sunday, the British health secretary, Matt Hancock, called those who were packing trains “clearly irresponsible.” He also said that the restrictions that Mr. Johnson imposed could be in place for months.
The science: Mutations of the coronavirus are of concern but not surprise to scientists, and whether the British variant is indeed more transmissible has not yet been proved. Several experts urged calm, saying it would take years — not months — for the virus to evolve enough to render current vaccines impotent.
In other coronavirus developments:
Public apathy and suspicion, and the government’s inability to enforce health restrictions, are feeding a second wave in Pakistan, where the social safety net is limited.
U.S. lawmakers are on the brink of agreement on a $900 billion stimulus package to provide relief to millions of Americans struggling financially during the pandemic, as well as relief to businesses and funds for vaccine distribution.
Health authorities in Thailand on Sunday announced the country’s biggest outbreak to date: 689 infections, linked to a single shrimp market not far from Bangkok.
No ‘negative’ news: China’s virus censorship
A detailed investigation by The Times based on thousands of internal directives and reports reveals how Chinese officials shaped online opinion in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.
Source: The documents were shared with The Times and ProPublica, a U.S.-based investigative newsroom, by a hacker group that calls itself C.C.P. Unmasked, referring to the Chinese Communist Party. The Times and ProPublica independently verified the authenticity of many of the documents.
Top example: Beijing’s censors swung into action after Dr. Li Wenliang, who had been harassed by the police after sounding the alarm about the virus in Wuhan, died of Covid-19, triggering a wave of public anger.
Officials told the news media not to alert his death and ordered social platforms to remove his name from trending topics pages. Propaganda workers activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter. Officials also deployed security forces to muzzle dissenting voices.
Messaging: Directives said that headlines should steer clear of the words “incurable” and “fatal,” “to avoid causing societal panic”; that the word “lockdown” should not be used when covering restrictions on movement and travel; and that “negative” news about the virus was not to be promoted.
The children who fled Ethiopia alone
Of the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, many are children. Hundreds of them walked unaccompanied to Sudan.
A Times reporter and photographer visited the Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan, and gathered their stories. Many said they were separated from their families after bolting from their homes in the middle of the night and trekking hours or days to reach safety with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Some encountered violent militias and dead bodies along the way.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has declared an end to the offensive in Tigray, but there are still reports of fighting, and the refugees say that the trauma of what they have experienced will keep them from going home any time soon.
Quotable: “Abiy doesn’t like us,” said Ataklti Aregawi, 17. “He doesn’t like us staying in Tigray.”
If you have 6 minutes, this is worth it
They made protective gear and got Covid
Top Glove, the world’s largest disposable glove maker, enjoyed record profits even as its low-paid workers in Malaysia suffered a ferocious outbreak of Covid-19. About 5,700 employees in just one factory have tested positive since November, creating the largest hot spot in Malaysia. Charges against the company are expected soon.
In interviews with The Times, five current and former Top Glove employees described working with masks soaked in sweat, sweltering in crowded hostels and taking virus tests for which they were never given results.
Here’s what else is happening
Nepal turmoil: The prime minister dissolved Parliament on Sunday amid infighting in the governing party, throwing into doubt the political future of a country where China and India have jockeyed for influence. Nepal is now set to hold elections starting in late April.
Zoom-Tiananmen charges: U.S. prosecutors have charged a company executive based in China with conspiring to disrupt or censor online meetings to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre. The executive, Xinjiang Jin, is accused of coordinating with Chinese officials to identify potentially problematic meetings.
Beirut blast: More than four months after the explosion, not a single official has accepted responsibility or publicly explained how a vast stockpile of explosive material was left unsecured in port for years. In fact, powerful politicians are working to block the judge in charge of the investigation from questioning senior officials.
Snapshot: Above, meet Aziz and Noor, newly unveiled Rohingya Muppets that will feature in programs shown in refugee camps. More than half of the residents of the Rohingya refugee settlements in Bangladesh are children.
What we’re reading: This New Republic article about sources who fabricated a story about Japan’s rent-a-family industry. It raises interesting questions about foreign coverage of Japan, or the “weird Japan” trap.
Now, a break from the news
Cook: These stuffed mushrooms are spicy, crunchy and rich with harissa, cumin, Parmesan and dried apricots. Our Food columnist Melissa Clark includes them in a menu of festive snacks that help make up for the lack of holiday parties.
Listen: Our pop critics have put together a playlist of somewhat unconventional holiday songs from Tayla Parx, Sam Smith and 12 others.
Do: An excellent activity in ordinary times, knitting is even better suited to a period when we’re being encouraged to stay home and restrict our social circles.
We’re here to help you enjoy the holidays. At Home has ideas on what to read, cook, watch and do while staying safe at home.
And now for the Back Story on …
A cruise during the pandemic
Reporters don’t usually get assigned to take cruises. But Sui-Lee Wee, a Singaporean who helps cover China for The Times, recently spent three days on an ocean liner, starting and ending her journey in Singapore. She wrote about the cruise to nowhere, what it takes to organize a Covid-free floating staycation and why she pitched the story to her editors in the first place.
As my trip loomed closer, I lost count of the number of times jaws dropped whenever I told someone I was going on a cruise.
“I’m dying to interview people face to face!” I would respond, realizing later that was a poor choice of words.
I had spoken to passengers who were about to board the first cruise from the Genting line in November. It was the first time in 10 months I had looked into an interviewee’s eyes, and I had almost forgotten how powerful eye contact is as a means of connection. I was — and am still — doing all of my reporting through the telephone and a mix of scouring the news and social media from China. [The country barred many foreign residents from returning starting in March, during the pandemic.] Those in-person interviews were another reminder that all of the things I used to rely on to report — the sights, sounds and smells — are all lost by my not being on the ground.
Another reason for going on the cruise was the dateline. Datelines are signposts for our readers, telling them that foreign correspondents are out in the world reporting from other countries. In my cabin, I opened my laptop and wrote: ABOARD THE WORLD DREAM, IN THE STRAIT OF MALACCA.
It was a joy speaking to people in person again. Everyone seemed relaxed and happy to talk. (“It’s been ages since I traveled!” one woman told me.) I attended a male strip show and was thankful that we had our masks on because I was laughing so hard. Perhaps it is possible to cruise safely in the Covid era, I thought.
But a week after I published my piece, a passenger on another Singapore “cruise to nowhere” tested positive for the coronavirus and the ship was returning to port.
I should have known that even with a long list of safety measures, the risk was never going to be zero.
Although it later emerged that the test was a false positive, it was a reminder that until vaccines are widely available, nothing — not least cruises — will be normal.
That’s it for this briefing. See you next time.
To Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the break from the news. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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