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As Omicron Spreads, Policy Responses Diverge

How does Biden’s strategy compare to other countries’ efforts to contain the new variant?

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the omicron variant of COVID-19 at the White House in Washington on Dec. 21.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the omicron variant of COVID-19 at the White House in Washington on Dec. 21.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about the omicron variant of COVID-19 at the White House in Washington on Dec. 21. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The Biden administration unveils a new pandemic strategy, Moscow blames the West for rising tensions, and Libya’s presidential election is mired in uncertainty.

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Biden Unveils New Strategy to Combat Omicron 

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The Biden administration unveils a new pandemic strategy, Moscow blames the West for rising tensions, and Libya’s presidential election is mired in uncertainty.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Biden Unveils New Strategy to Combat Omicron 

As the omicron variant sweeps across the United States, President Joe Biden unveiled a new pandemic strategy on Tuesday to combat surging COVID-19 infections.

Now the dominant COVID-19 strain in the United States, omicron accounted for 73 percent of new infections last week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I don’t think anybody anticipated that this was going to be as rapidly spreading as it did,” Biden said. 

Under the new plan, the Biden administration will distribute 500 million free at-home tests, based on a similar system that Britain has implemented. To support overwhelmed hospitals, the government will deploy 1,000 military medical professionals and Federal Emergency Management Agency teams to hard-hit states while also establishing new testing and vaccination sites. Lockdowns are still out of the picture, and travel bans on southern African countries may be reversed.

As the world approaches two years of life under the pandemic, Biden attempted to rally Americans. “I know you’re tired—I really mean this—and I know you’re frustrated. We all want this to be over,” he said. “But we’re still in it, and this is a critical moment.”

Around the world, however, determining exactly how to combat spiking omicron infections has proved to be a divisive issue. 

While South Africa decided against imposing lockdowns in November, the Netherlands has adopted one of the most stringent lockdown policies to confront rising case numbers. Throughout the country, nonessential businesses will be closed until mid-January, and households will be limited to having two guests. 

Others are postponing strict regulations until after the holiday period. Germany and Portugal, for instance, are set to tighten their pandemic rules post-Christmas, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has refused to set new restrictions before the holiday. 

Australia also shunned lockdowns as omicron infections spiked, while New Zealand delayed plans to reopen its borders until February. Weeks after readmitting tourists, Thailand decided to suspend its quarantine-free travel program. China, like before, returned to its campaign of mass contact tracing, testing, and lockdowns to quash the variant.

And some nations are still bracing for omicron’s spread. “We can see another storm coming,” said Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s Europe regional director. “Within weeks, omicron will dominate in more countries.”


What We’re Following Today

Moscow’s warnings. Days after issuing a list of strict demands over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed NATO for escalating tensions in Europe and threatened “retaliatory military-technical measures.”

“We can’t retreat any further,” he told a group of senior Russian military officials. “Do they really think we’ll sit idly as they create threats against us?” 

As tensions continue to escalate, Washington and Moscow are set to hold talks in January over Putin’s demands. “We are prepared to discuss those proposals that Russia put on the table,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried said on Tuesday. “There are some things that we are prepared to work on and that we do believe there is merit in having a discussion.” 

Libya’s uncertain election. Libya’s presidential election is supposed to take place on Friday, the 70th anniversary of its independence. But with just days to go until the vote, Libyans still do not have a list of authorized candidates, and the national election commission has dissolved its electoral committees.

Although all parties acknowledge that the election cannot take place on Friday, a formal postponement has yet to be declared—and it’s unclear as to who would run the country in the meantime.


Keep an Eye On 

Hamdok’s resignation rumors. Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok plans to resign imminently, Reuters reported. His expected resignation comes days after hundreds of thousands demonstrators marched against the country’s October military coup and his return to government. On Tuesday, the United Nations called for an investigation into reports of sexual violence during the protests

France’s fake health passes. French authorities have discovered 182,000 fake COVID-19 health passes since the passes were mandated in July, a sign of persistent vaccine resistance in the country. When the passes first became required for entry to public venues such as restaurants and cafes, they sparked national protests.

The French police are determined to crack down on forgeries. “Using, procuring or selling false health passes, in particular via social networks, is punishable by 5 years in prison and a 75,000 euro fine,” French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin tweeted. 

Perilous journey. In the past week, 164 migrants seeking refuge in Europe drowned in two separate shipwrecks off the Libyan coast, the United Nations announced on Tuesday. A central transit point for African and Middle Eastern migrants, Libya has experienced a rise in attempted crossings in recent months. This year, nearly 1,500 people have died passing through the Mediterranean route while attempting to reach Europe.


Odds and Ends 

As the holidays approach, higher demand for pork in Spain is pushing professional ham sniffers, or caladores, to their smelling limits. During the industry’s low season, sniffers typically smell 200 loins per day to assess their quality and scent profile. But as demand ramps up, sniffers now must evaluate as many as 800 hams per day. To cope with these increased responsibilities, some caladores have started taking 10-minute breaks every two hours. 

It’s a demanding position that requires detective-like senses of smell. “When a normal person smells a bad smell, it’s just bad,” quality control chief Cristina Sánchez Blanco said. “For me, I know exactly how bad it is.”

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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