The public reaction to new Covid-19 variants has followed a familiar cycle. People tend to assume the worst about two different questions — whether the variant leads to faster transmission of the Covid virus and whether it causes more severe illness among infected people.
The first of those worries came true with the Alpha and Delta variants: Alpha was more contagious than the original version of the virus, and Delta was even more contagious than Alpha. But the second of the worries has largely not been borne out: With both Alpha and Delta, the percentage of Covid cases that led to hospitalization or death held fairly steady.
This pattern isn’t surprising, scientists say. Viruses often evolve in ways that help them flourish. Becoming more contagious allows a virus to do so; becoming more severe has the potential to do the opposite, because more of a virus’s hosts can die before they infect others.
It is too soon to know whether the Omicron variant will fit the pattern. But the very early evidence suggests that it may. Unfortunately, Omicron seems likely to be more contagious than Delta, including among vaccinated people. Fortunately, the evidence so far does not indicate that Omicron is causing more severe illness:
Barry Schoub, a South African virologist who advises the government there, has said that Omicron cases have tended to be “mild to moderate.” Schoub added: “That’s a good sign. But let me stress it is early days.”
Dr. Rudo Mathivha, the head of the intensive care unit at a hospital in Soweto, South Africa, said that severe cases have been concentrated among people who were not fully vaccinated.
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, a top health official in Israel, emphasized yesterday that when vaccinated people were infected, they became only slightly ill, according to the publication Haaretz.
As The Times’s Carl Zimmer wrote, “For now, there’s no evidence that Omicron causes more severe disease than previous variants.”
In the initial days after a new variant is discovered, I know that many people focus on worst-case scenarios. The alarming headlines can make it seem as if the pandemic may be about to start all over again, with vaccines powerless to stop the variant.
To be clear, there is genuine uncertainty about Omicron. Maybe it will prove to be worse than the very early signs suggest and cause more severe illness than Delta. But assuming the worst about each worrisome new variant is not a science-based, rational response. And alarmism has its own costs, especially to mental health, notes Dr. Raghib Ali, an epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge.
“Of course we should take it seriously,” Ali wrote on Twitter, “but there is no plausible scenario that this variant is going to take us back to square one (i.e. the situation pre-vaccines).”
Absent new evidence, the rational assumption is that Covid is likely to remain overwhelmingly mild among the vaccinated (unless their health is already precarious). For most vaccinated people, Covid probably presents less risk than some everyday activities.
On “Meet the Press” yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci emphasized the continuing power of vaccination, even against variants. “It may not be as good in protecting against initial infection,” Fauci said, “but it has a very important impact on diminishing the likelihood that you’re going to get a severe outcome from it.”
Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist, made a similar point in her Substack newsletter this weekend:
Do not take Omicron lightly, but don’t abandon hope either. Our immune systems are incredible.
None of this changes what you can to do right now: Ventilate spaces. Use masks. Test if you have symptoms. Isolate if positive. Get vaccinated. Get boosted.
Government leaders can take an additional step, though: Improve global vaccine distribution. Variants are more likely to emerge in places with low vaccination rates, and less than 10 percent of people are vaccinated in many parts of Africa. (Look up the rate for any country.)
This weekend, Andy Slavitt, a former Covid adviser to President Biden, called for “the mass shipment of hundreds of millions of vaccines” to southern Africa.
More on Omicron
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Art Basel returns to Miami Beach this week. The annual event, which also has shows in Switzerland and Hong Kong, is a big deal — ARTnews calls it “the world’s most important modern and contemporary art fair.” The area will host hundreds of galleries, along with satellite art fairs, pop-up shows and celebrity-studded private dinners.
Miami’s moment: The area’s art scene is thriving, Brett Sokol writes in The Times. Several new museums are in the works, and gallery sales boomed as collectors and tech entrepreneurs left the Northeast and West Coast during the pandemic.
A new era: Expect “clear skies with a virtual storm of NFTs,” The Miami Herald writes. There will be an array of gatherings centered on the emerging technology, including a daylong conference, NFT BZL. (At one interactive exhibit, visitors will be able to make an AI self-portrait and take it home as an NFT.)
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If you’re in the area: Time Out has a roundup of public works on display this week, including a massive, multisensory labyrinth sculpture. — Claire Moses, a Morning writer
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
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A chat with the young actors starring in some of this year’s biggest films, including “C’mon C’mon,” “Belfast,” and “King Richard.”
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“Drive My Car,” directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, is about grief, love, work and the soul-sustaining power of art. Manohla Dargis calls it a “quiet masterpiece.”
What to Read
In his novel “Harsh Times,” the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa examines power and conspiracy at a crucial point in Latin American history.
Now Time to Play
A Ban on 19 Singers in Egypt Tests the Old Guard’s Power
CAIRO — The song starts out like standard fare for Egyptian pop music: A secret infatuation between two young neighbors who, unable to marry, sneak flirtatious glances at each other and commit their hearts in a bittersweet dance of longing and waiting.
But then the lyrics take a radical turn.
“If you leave me,” blasts the singer, Hassan Shakosh, “I’ll be lost and gone, drinking alcohol and smoking hash.”
The song, “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” has become a giant hit, garnering more than a half- billion views of its video on YouTube alone and catapulting Mr. Shakosh to stardom. But the explicit reference to drugs and booze, culturally prohibited substances in Egypt, has made the song, released in 2019, a lightning rod in a culture war over what is an acceptable face and subject matter for popular music and who gets to decide.
The battle, which pits Egypt’s cultural establishment against a renegade musical genre embraced by millions of young Egyptians, has heated up recently after the organization that licenses musicians barred at least 19 young artists from singing and performing in Egypt.
The organization, the Egyptian Musicians’ Syndicate, accused Mr. Shakosh and other singers of the genre, known as mahraganat, of normalizing, and thus encouraging, decadent behavior, of misrepresenting Egypt and of spoiling public taste.
“They are creating a chaotic movement in the country,” said Tarek Mortada, the spokesman for the syndicate, a professional union that issues permits for artists to perform onstage and that while technically not an arm of the state, is governed by state law and its budget is supervised by the state. “What we’re confronting right now is the face of depravity and regression.”
The barred singers have been iced out of clubs, concerts and weddings. Some have continued to perform abroad or at private parties, but they have had to say no to advertising deals and other income opportunities. The syndicate’s stance has also cast a pall over Egypt’s cultural scene, sending a strong message that artists are not free agents and must still toe restrictive lines set by civil and state institutions. The musicians see the syndicate as an outmoded entity desperately clinging to a strictly curated vision and image of Egyptian culture that is smashing against an inevitable wave of youth-driven change.
“They can’t get themselves to be convinced that we’re here to stay,” said Ibrahim Soliman, 33, Mr. Shakosh’s manager and childhood friend. “How can you say someone like Shakosh misrepresents Egypt when his songs are being heard and shared by the entire country?”
Fans were incensed. One meme depicted the leader of the syndicate, a pop singer of love classics from the 1970s, ordering people to stop singing in the bathroom.
The battle mirrors cultural conflicts across the region where autocratic governments in socially conservative countries have tried to censor any expression that challenges traditional mores. For example, Iran has arrested teenage girls who posted videos of themselves dancing, which is a crime there. And in 2020, Northwestern University in Qatar called off a concert by a Lebanese indie rock band whose lead singer is openly gay.
But online streaming and social media platforms have poked giant holes in that effort, allowing artists to bypass state-sanctioned media, like television and record companies, and reach a generation of new fans hungry for what they see as more authentic and relevant content.
Iran’s draconian restrictions on unacceptable music have produced a flourishing underground rock and hip-hop scene. The question facing Egypt is who now has the power to regulate matters of taste — the 12 men and one woman who run the syndicate, or the millions of fans who have been streaming and downloading mahraganat.
Mahraganat first rose out of the dense, rowdy working-class neighborhoods of Cairo more than a decade ago and is still generally made in low-tech home studios, often with no more equipment than a cheap microphone and pirated software.
The raw, straight-talking genre — with blunt lyrics about love, sex, power and poverty — mirrors the experience and culture of a broad section of the disenfranchised youth who live in those districts set to a danceable, throbbing beat.
But its catchy rhymes and electronic rhythms quickly went mainstream and now echo from the glamorous wedding ballrooms of Egypt’s French-speaking elite to exclusive nightclubs in Mediterranean resorts to concert halls in oil-rich Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“Mahraganat is a true representation of this moment in time, of globalization and information technology, and of social media in directing our tastes,” said Sayed Mahmoud, a culture writer and former editor of a weekly newspaper called “Alkahera” issued by the Ministry of Culture. “If you remove the reference to drugs and alcohol, does it mean they don’t exist? The songs represent real life and real culture.”
They are certainly more direct, avoiding the sanitized euphemisms and poetic hints of sexuality that characterize traditional lyrics.
“We use the words that are close to our tongue, without embellishing or beautifying, and it reaches people,” said Islam Ramadan, who goes by the name DJ Saso, the 27-year-old producer of Mr. Shakosh’s blockbuster hit.
Many lawyers and experts say the syndicate has no legal right to ban artists, insisting that Egypt’s Constitution explicitly protects creative liberty. But these arguments seem academic in the authoritarian state of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which has stifled freedom of speech, tightened control on the media and passed laws to help monitor and criminalize so-called immoral behavior on the internet.
The syndicate’s executive members have adamantly defended their move, arguing that a key part of their job is to safeguard the profession against inferior work that they say is made by uncultured impostors who tarnish the image of the country.
And government authorities have reinforced the message.
In 2017, a special division of the police that targets moral crimes arrested the makers of a mahraganat song, and promised to continue searching for work that “presents offensive content for the Egyptian viewer or contains sexual insinuations.”
In 2020, after a video circulated showing dozens of students at an all-girls high school singing along to “The Neighbors’ Daughter,” the Ministry of Education warned schools against the “noticeable” spread of songs that incite “bad behavior.”
A short time later, the minister of youth and sports vowed to “combat depravity” by banning mahraganat music from being played in athletic arenas and sports facilities.
The head of the syndicate, Hany Shaker, defended the ban on a late-night television show, saying, “We can’t be in the era of Sisi and allow this to be the leading art.”
So far, the syndicate claims to be winning the fight.
“We have in fact stopped them because they can’t get onstage in Egypt,” said Mr. Mortada, the organization’s spokesman, adding that it went so far as to ask YouTube to remove videos of the banned singers. It has not received a response from YouTube, he said.
But who will win in the long run remains to be seen.
The syndicate’s very structure smacks of a bygone era. To be admitted and allowed to sing and perform onstage, an artist must pass a test that includes a classical singing audition. The test is anathema to a genre that relies on autotune and prioritizes rhythm and flow over melody.
While the syndicate’s efforts may be keeping mahraganat out of clubs and concert halls, the music has never stopped.
Mr. Shakosh’s popularity continues to rise. He has more than six million followers on Facebook and over four million on Instagram and TikTok, and his music videos have exceeded two billion views on YouTube.
He is one of the Arab world’s leading performers. Since he was barred, he has performed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iraq, and “The Neighbors’ Daughter” has become one of the biggest Arabic hits to date.
“It’s not the same old love songs,” said Yasmine el-Assal, a 41-year-old bank executive, after attending one of Mr. Shakosh’s concerts before the ban. “His stage presence, the music, the vibe, it’s fresh and it’s all about having fun.”
Mr. Shakosh would not agree to be interviewed, preferring to keep a low profile, his manager said, rather than to appear to publicly challenge the authorities. The ban has been harder on other artists, many of whom do not have the wherewithal or the international profile to tour abroad.
They have mostly kept quiet, refusing to make statements that they fear could ruffle more feathers.
Despite the squeeze, however, many are confident that their music falls beyond the grip of any single authority or government.
Kareem Gaber, a 23-year-old experimental music producer known by the stage name El Waili, is still burning tracks, sitting in his bedroom with a twin mattress on the floor, bare walls and his instrument, a personal computer with $100 MIDI keyboard.
“Mahraganat taught us that you can do something new,” he said, “and it will be heard.”
In the Trenches of Ukraine’s Forever War
“He did say something about the wedding,” Volodymyr said. “But we didn’t talk about finishing our service.”
“Well, he spoke of it just with us,” Yaroslav’s father said. “He didn’t talk about it with the guys yet. He’d bought a house, renovated it. All with his own hands, all how they wanted it. He said, ‘My contract will finish, and we’ll live like humans.’ If anyone would have told us. …”
He didn’t finish the sentence.
By that point, Yaroslav had been buried, in his hometown, Pidlypne, three hours northwest of Kyiv. In the morning, mourners began gathering outside Yaroslav’s house, its wood siding freshly painted a vibrant green. Family, friends, neighbors, classmates, fellow soldiers and local veterans carried flowers, many of them in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, all of them held upside down, a local custom. Some, like Yaroslav’s commander, had traveled from across the country to attend. By midday there was a crowd of several hundred.
At noon, a police car, siren flashing, pulled in front of the house, and the crowd parted to let it through. Behind it was a Humvee with an open rear. A coffin was draped in blue-and-yellow wreaths. An honor guard of cadets carried the coffin into the garden. A quartet of priests and army chaplains in olive drab surplices sang hymns. Yaroslav’s fiancée fainted and was carried into the house. As the coffin was carried back out to the Humvee, a cadet yelled, “Heroes never die!” The other cadets echoed, “Heroes never die!” A brass band struck up a dirge and started toward the church, the Humvee and crowd following behind.
I fell in with a man in his 60s walking with a single crutch. He was wearing an old telnyashka, the traditional striped undershirt of the Russian military, beneath a great coat. The medals hanging from it clattered.
He had been a Soviet paratrooper in Afghanistan, he told me, and was proud of it. But he was also a Ukrainian, from Donetsk, and when the war in Donbas started, he helped organize the volunteers from Pidlypne. He had been going to funerals like this one ever since. If this had been a few years ago, he said, the whole city would have turned out. There would have been thousands of mourners, not hundreds.
“Now everyone is tired of the war,” he said.
Though Ukrainian, he, too, longed for the days of the Soviet Union, he confided. Life was dependable then. The leaders might have been cruel, but they were honest. Now it was a mess. He didn’t know what to expect.
Netanyahu’s Lawyers Discuss a Plea Bargain to End His Graft Trial
JERUSALEM — The lawyers of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli former prime minister, are in negotiations with state prosecutors to reach a plea bargain in his long-running corruption case, according to a spokesman for the Israeli Justice Ministry and two people involved in the negotiations.
The talks are expected to finish by the end of the month and, if successful, would help conclude a legal process that contributed to years of political instability in Israel and, ultimately, to the end last June of Mr. Netanyahu’s record tenure as prime minister.
The proposed bargain includes Mr. Netanyahu’s admitting to some of the charges, all of which he still formally denies in court, in exchange for the prosecution’s downgrading the seriousness of one charge, dropping another entirely and allowing Mr. Netanyahu to avoid serving a jail sentence by instead performing community service, the two negotiators said.
The talks are currently stuck, however, because Mr. Netanyahu does not want to accept the charge of “moral turpitude,” a designation that would bar Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s biggest right-wing party, from public office for seven years, the negotiators said.
The details, first reported in Maariv, a centrist Israeli newspaper, were confirmed to The New York Times by one of the main mediators, Aharon Barak, a former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, and a second person involved in the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations openly. A spokesman for the Justice Ministry confirmed that talks were taking place, but declined to confirm any further details. The office of Boaz Ben Tzur, one of Mr. Netanyahu’s lead lawyers, declined to comment.
The talks are the latest twist in a legal process that began in 2016 with a police inquiry into claims that Mr. Netanyahu had accepted gifts from benefactors in exchange for political favors.
The investigation expanded after Mr. Netanyahu was accused of offering the owners of two media companies inducements in exchange for positive news coverage. The charges quickly divided Israelis between those who believed that Mr. Netanyahu should step down to avoid tainting the office of the prime minister, and those who thought that he was the victim of a judicial conspiracy.
The argument deepened a longstanding national debate about the power of the judiciary, and drew comparisons with the furor surrounding American efforts to impeach President Donald J. Trump.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Netanyahu framed himself as the victim of a biased justice system, describing the process as a “witch hunt” and an “attempted administrative coup” when his trial began in 2020.
Both Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to engage in negotiations and his engagement with Mr. Barak, a former judge considered a doyen of the Israeli legal establishment, have therefore surprised some Israelis.
Mr. Barak said that he had agreed to play a role because Mr. Netanyahu, in cases that did not affect him personally, had historically helped to protect judicial independence and because a partial confession by Mr. Netanyahu might help heal social divisions and restore trust in the judiciary.
“It’s of national importance that this thing should result in the accused himself saying, ‘I admit that I have done it,’” Mr. Barak said in a phone interview.
The case caused two years of political stagnation, largely because it splintered Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing voter base as well as his right-wing allies in the Israeli Parliament — a fissure that led to four inconclusive elections from 2019 to 2021. After the first three votes, Mr. Netanyahu’s remaining allies won enough seats to stay in power, but not enough to form a stable coalition government or pass key legislation like a national budget.
The impasse ended after a fourth election last year, when three small right-wing parties agreed to form a grand coalition with ideological opponents from leftist, centrist and Islamist parties to create a parliamentary majority large enough to force Mr. Netanyahu to leave office.
If Mr. Netanyahu, currently the leader of the opposition, does agree to the deal and leave politics, analysts said that the decision would destabilize, though not necessarily completely collapse, the fragile current coalition government. The logic that glues the alliance together would weaken if he were forced to abandon representative politics because it might tempt right-wing members of the current government to form a different coalition with the new leader of Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud.
But Likud will take time to elect a chairman. And once elected, the new leader might still be too closely tied to Mr. Netanyahu to be a viable partner for his right-wing opponents, said Anshel Pfeffer, an Israeli political columnist and biographer of Mr. Netanyahu.
“Likud will remain Bibi’s tribute band until they have a strong new leader, and I can’t see any candidate for that job,” Mr. Pfeffer said, using a nickname for Mr. Netanyahu.
The office of the current prime minister, Naftali Bennett, who leads a right-wing faction, declined to comment. But in a speech to the cabinet on Sunday morning, Mr. Bennett said that the government was continuing to work as normal.
“All of the various political analysts, with their graphs and scenarios, can rest assured,” Mr. Bennett said. “The government of Israel is working and will continue to work quietly and effectively, day after day, for the citizens of Israel.”
Most analysts believe that if a plea bargain is to happen, it will need to be agreed to by the end of January. The state official overseeing the case, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, is retiring in early February and his successor is unlikely to focus on such a divisive issue early on.
Opponents of Mr. Netanyahu protested outside Mr. Mandelblit’s home on Saturday evening, urging him to allow the case to be decided in court.