Coronavirus, Stimulus Deal, Rohingya: Your Monday Briefing


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Good morning.

We’re covering concerns about a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus in Britain, a long-awaited U.S. stimulus deal and new Muppets who are refugees.


In a bid to keep out a concerning variant of the coronavirus now rampant in Britain, European countries began closing their borders to travelers from the United Kingdom a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a lockdown in London and most of England’s southeast, reversing course on a plan to ease restrictions over Christmas.

Designed to cut off the capital and its surrounding counties from the rest of England, the new measures are the most severe since a lockdown imposed in March, and reflect a fear that the new variant could supercharge the transmission of the virus as winter takes hold.

The science: Mutations of the coronavirus are of concern but not a 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.

Brexit: Mr. Johnson’s 11th-hour decision on Saturday to impose a Christmas lockdown so rattled Britain that the announcement overshadowed the other down-to-the-wire drama he was staging: the ongoing Brexit trade negotiations in Brussels, in which a deal looks as elusive as ever.

Here are the latest updates and maps of the pandemic.


In other coronavirus developments:

  • In Sweden, there have been 66 new daily cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days, a rate nearly identical to that of the U.S., while Lithuania has the world’s highest current rate of spread, with a daily average of 98.6 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past week.

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli to be inoculated against Covid-19 on Saturday night, saying he wanted to set an example and encourage all Israelis to get the vaccine.

Of the tens of thousands of refugees who have fled the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, nearly a third are children, hundreds of whom walked unaccompanied to Sudan.

A Times reporter and a photographer visited the Um Rakuba refugee camp in Sudan to hear 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 of Ethiopia has declared an end to the offensive in Tigray, but there are still reports of fighting. 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.”

Just hours before the federal government was set to run out of funds, U.S. lawmakers struck an agreement on a $900 billion stimulus package to provide relief to millions of Americans.

The package would provide direct payments of $600 and jobless aid to struggling Americans, and badly needed funds for small businesses, hospitals, schools and vaccine distribution, overcoming months of stalemate on a measure intended to boost the pandemic-battered economy.

The House could vote as early as Monday on the final spending package, and the Senate is expected to follow shortly afterward, sending the bill to President Trump for his signature.


Analysis: Researchers estimate that millions of families have slipped into poverty during the pandemic. While this new round of government aid could lift many of them back above the poverty line, there will still be lasting effects.

Opinion: This deal is good enough, writes the Times editorial board. It should be larger. It should have happened months ago. But an agreement on coronavirus aid is still a welcome dose of good news.

When a shopping mall closes, where does all of its stuff go? As these once-majestic commercial centers, like Metrocenter mall in Phoenix, above, are stripped for parts, dead-mall enthusiasts have flocked to public liquidation auctions to collect anything from ephemera to fire extinguishers.

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. Directives said that “negative” news about the virus was not to be promoted.


Israel: Diplomatic sweeteners offered to Muslim states by President Trump in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel could be rejected by Congress or reversed by the incoming Biden administration, potentially exacerbating a worldview that the U.S. cannot be depended upon to hold up its end of diplomatic deals.


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 the port for years. Instead, powerful politicians are working to block the judge in charge of the investigation from questioning senior officials.

Snapshot: Meet Aziz and Noor, above. The newly unveiled Rohingya Muppets will feature in programs shown in refugee camps. More than half of the residents of the Rohingya refugee settlements in Bangladesh are children.

Winter solstice: Tonight is the longest, darkest night of a long, dark year. This winter’s darkness is as literal as it is metaphorical, with the catastrophic toll of Covid-19, and fear and dread for what is to come. But there’s a spark of light: Jupiter and Saturn early in the evening will almost kiss in the night sky, appearing as one bright planet.

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,” writes Carole Landry, from the Briefings team.

Listen: Our pop critics have put together a playlist of somewhat unconventional holiday songs from Tayla Parx, Sam Smith and 12 others.


Do: Under normal circumstances, knitting is great. Right now? It couldn’t be better suited to these challenging times of staying home and restricting 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.

The Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman has spent the past 10 months exploring the city’s communities with architects, writers and historians, eventually producing 17 virtual walks that allow readers to hop from the Bronx to Brooklyn, from pre-Cambrian days to the present. Here’s what he learned, excerpted below.

How did this project start?

When the pandemic struck, I saw it as a challenge, to think what I could do that would not be just wild prognosticating about what would happen to the city. So I wrote to a bunch of people I knew, architects, historians and others, right before the lockdown. I asked, “What about taking a walk around town?”


You began simulating the walks after the city shut down in March. How did that work?

By the time we published the second walk, about Museum Mile, it had become impractical to walk around the city safely with someone, and it also sent the wrong signal. So I began doing the walks virtually: over the phone or via Zoom.

The truth is that virtual walks were in many ways easier to do because we could pack more into a conversation without having to deal with actually walking long distances or talking over traffic. That said, I was glad to return to walking, as I did around Chinatown, because it let me meet up with various people and because, well, actually walking the city is a joy.

You do address the pandemic in the Chinatown walk.

I had Chinatown in mind from the start because that neighborhood was, even before the lockdown, hard hit by a wave of xenophobia. I wanted to remind people not just how wonderful the neighborhood is but how central it is to New York’s historic identity and diversity.


You were born and raised in New York. How did this project change your perspective on the city?

I wanted even people who had walked these places before to see them through different eyes. For me, much of this environmental, pre-colonial and 19th-century history was news, and exhilarating and humbling because it reminded me just how much I don’t know but also how endless New York is.

That’s it for this briefing. Have a great week.

— Natasha

Thank you
To Theodore Kim and Jahaan Singh for the break from the news. You can reach the team at [email protected].


• We’re listening to “The Daily.” Our latest episode is about evictions in the U.S. during the pandemic.
• Here’s our Mini Crossword, and a clue: Currency of Cuba and Colombia (four letters). You can find all our puzzles here.
• The latest Book Review podcast features Kerri Greenidge on African-American resistance and Neal Gabler on Edward Kennedy.

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