Asia Pacific Briefing: Covid spikes in Africa

Several countries reintroduce restrictions and mandates.

Good morning. We're covering the latest Covid wave in Africa and the launch of a $10 billion telescope seeking to capture the universe's earliest days.

Shots administered on Friday at a vaccination center in Nairobi, Kenya.Brian Inganga/Associated Press

African countries attempt to slow fourth Covid wave

Across Africa, the world's least-vaccinated continent, the spread of the Omicron variant has coincided with a rapid spike in reported case counts, prompting health authorities in several countries to reintroduce curfews and quarantines, and impose new vaccine mandates.

In Kenya, the percentage of positive coronavirus tests has jumped in the past three weeks to 30 percent from 1 percent; in Uganda, nearly 50 lawmakers tested positive after attending a sporting event; and in Zimbabwe, government officials instituted new restrictions on businesses and travelers.

At least 21 African countries are now experiencing a fourth wave of the pandemic, according to the Africa C.D.C. Three — Algeria, Kenya and Mauritius — are enduring a fifth.

Omicron has now been detected in 22 African countries, but limited testing makes it difficult to know if the new variant is responsible for the spike. Early data from South Africa, where the variant was first detected, suggests it may have already peaked there and that it is less severe than earlier variants. However, health experts warned not to extrapolate those results to African countries with older populations and lower vaccination rates.

In other developments:

Anastasia Bilotshitska, left, trains near Kyiv, Ukraine.Oksana Parafeniuk for The New York Times

Ukraine trains civilians in insurgency

With the threat of a Russian attack from the east, Ukraine and its neighbors have drawn a lesson from America's wars of the last decades: Insurgency works.

Private paramilitary groups and other civilians may be a pivotal part of the defense strategy against any potential Russian offensive. Ukraine's generals say the military stands little chance in an invasion, so they are building a nonmilitary resistance, similar to the guerrillas who proved effective in Iraq and Afghanistan in the face of American firepower.

The goal of the civilian force is not to achieve victory against the Russians, which would be virtually impossible. Rather, it is to create enough of a resistance to deter an invasion in the first place.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — former Soviet nations north of Ukraine — all have programs encouraging rifle ownership for some civilians and formal training to fight as partisans after an occupation. Nearly every weekend in Estonia, self-defense organizations hold exercises in the forests for volunteers, right down to making improvised explosive devices.

Experience: Volunteer brigades formed the backbone of Ukraine's force in the east in 2014, the first year of the war against Russian separatists.

Related: Amid fear of an invasion, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has surrounded himself with people drawn from his comedy studio. Few have any experience in diplomacy or warfare.

The James Webb Space Telescope, launches in Kourou, French Guiana, on Dec. 25th.Jody Amiet/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Telescope launched to peer at the dawn of the universe

The biggest and most expensive space-based observatory ever built, the James Webb Space Telescope, launched over the weekend, aiming for an orbit around the sun and, eventually, a keyhole into the earliest moments of our universe.

The telescope — a joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency — lifted off from French Guiana with a mission to seek out the earliest, most distant stars and galaxies, which appeared 13.7 billion years ago in a fog left over from the Big Bang.

The device is built to see significantly further back in time than the famed Hubble Space Telescope. With a 21-foot mirror, it is about three times bigger than Hubble, and seven times more sensitive.

Delays: The $10 billion telescope has trudged through one of the most fraught development timelines of any space program, lasting over two decades and costing billions more than its original estimate. It was ferried to French Guiana in secret, in part out of concerns over piracy.

What's next: The solar panel deployment half an hour into the flight was the first in a monthlong series of maneuvers and deployments with what NASA calls "344 single points of failure."

The name: The telescope is named for James Webb, a former NASA administrator who led the agency through the Apollo missions. But many astronomers are unhappy with the selection.

THE LATEST NEWS

Asia
The aftermath of the killings in Kayah State, Myanmar, on Friday, according to an ethnic militia whose spokesman took this photograph.Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, via Associated Press
World News
Protesters denouncing the October coup in Khartoum, Sudan, on Saturday.Marwan Ali/Associated Press
A Morning Read
Umniah Alzahery and her husband, Mike Bounacklie, prepared for Christmas in Jeddah.Iman Al-Dabbagh for The New York Times

Christmas in Saudi Arabia, long banned but covertly celebrated, is now bursting out of the shadows. Shop windows display advent calendars and florists advertise "holiday trees." The crown prince, who has been accused of committing atrocities and who continues to jail dissenters, has won over millions of young Saudis by relaxing some of the stricter religious rules, a move he hopes will signal to the world that the country is moderate and tolerant.

Lives Lived: Desmond M. Tutu, the cleric who used his pulpit and spirited oratory to help bring down apartheid in South Africa and then became the leading advocate of peaceful reconciliation under Black majority rule, died on Sunday at 90. Tributes have poured in.

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ARTS AND IDEAS

Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden walk out for his inauguration as U.S. president in January.Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The great news quiz of 2021

At the end of the year, we like to expand our weekly news quiz into something more ambitious: one big quiz that tries to capture as much of the year's news as possible. News junkies will probably ace it. Do you know …

  • Which country's president was assassinated this year?
  • Where the Suez Canal is?
  • What dystopian Netflix series was TV's biggest hit of the year?

But those who aren't obsessed with the news will enjoy it, too. We've got words to spell, maps to click and more — like questions about vaccination rates and meme stocks and Bernie Sanders's mittens. Play it here.

Not done looking back? Check out the Well's favorite pieces of advice this year.

PLAY, WATCH, EAT

What to Cook
Beatriz Da Costa for The New York Times

You don't need a party to make shrimp cocktail.

What to Read

Joan Didion, who died last week, was a prolific writer of stylish essays, novels, screenplays and memoirs. Here's a guide to her books.

What to Watch

"Don't Look Up," a doomsday comedy starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep, is "a busy, boisterous mixed bag," our film critic Manohla Dargis writes.

Now Time to Play

Here's today's Mini Crossword, and a clue: Getting older (five letters).

That's it for today's briefing. See you next time. — Matthew

P.S. Grace Maalouf, an editor at The Times, is joining our International desk.

The latest episode of "The Daily" is an audio time capsule of 2021.

You can reach Matthew and the team at briefing@nytimes.com.

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