China struggles with the largest Covid-19 outbreak in history, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg urges to arm Ukraine more for the war, while U.S. President Joe Biden signed a 2023 federal spending bill that includes aid for Kyiv.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping once again embraced, exchanging pledges of intense cooperation, and Kosovo accused the Kremlin of trying to distract the world from Ukraine by provoking a conflict between Kosovo and Serbia.
A risk of a million deaths from Covid in China
Scientists warn about potentially catastrophic outcomes of a Covid-19 outbreak in China.
In the worst-case scenario, the virus could kill as many people in China in the next four months as it has Americans during the entire three-year pandemic, The New York Times writes.
Hong Kong researchers estimated that nearly a million people could die during the early months after the "zero Covid" policy was canceled.
An American group estimated as many as half a million deaths by April and another million by the end of 2023 if China rejects social-distancing mandates. Airfinity, a British-based analytics company, this week offered an even more dire short-term forecast: 1.7 million Covid deaths by the end of April.
Until this month, the world seemed to have a reasonably clear understanding of what was happening with the virus in China. The ruling Communist Party proudly published low daily case numbers and deaths as a testament to its stringent "zero Covid" policy. But in early December, the government abruptly abandoned "zero Covid," leaving the scientific community largely in the dark.
The data coming from the Chinese government can’t be trusted anymore. Officially, China has claimed just 12 deaths from Covid since December 1. The country has said it will only count those who die from respiratory failure directly linked to an infection, leaving out vast numbers who died because of concomitant diseases.
There are also indications that officials are pressuring doctors and crematories to avoid categorizing even respiratory deaths as caused by the virus.
Experts say the sheer speed of the spread would suggest a much higher number of deaths. One recent estimate cited data from national health officials that 250 million people had been infected in the first 20 days of December.
Some scientists are skeptical about these reports. They believe that either China had been suppressing data for months or that it was trying to make it seem like the outbreak had peaked.
"Either they know something we don’t," said Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, "or they’re trying to say the worst is already over. I suspect it’s now the latter.
How the world reacts to the outbreak in China
Meanwhile, Airfinity estimated that 9,000 people in China were probably dying each day from Covid, and cumulative deaths since December 1 likely reached 100,000, with infections totalling 18.6m, The Guardian reports.
Airfinity expects China’s Covid infections to reach their first peak on January 13 with 3.7 million cases a day, while deaths would peak on 23 January with about 25,000 a day.
The United States is considering sampling wastewater taken from international aircraft to track any emerging new Covid-19 variants. The U.S. and a number of other countries have said travelers from China will require mandatory negative Covid tests.
The European Union’s health agency said on Thursday it believed the EU-wide introduction of mandatory Covid screenings for travelers from China was currently "unjustified".
But in a series of tweets, the World Health Organization chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged China to provide detailed data on the pandemic situation in the country.
"In the absence of comprehensive information from China, it is understandable that countries around the world are acting in ways that they believe may protect their populations," Tedros wrote.
Internationally, travel restrictions such as mandatory testing have so far failed to significantly curb the spread of Covid, said Dr Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota.
"They seem to be essential from a political standpoint. I think each government feels like they will be accused of not doing enough to protect their citizens if they don’t do these," he said.
A better solution would be testing wastewater from airlines, which would offer a clearer picture of how the virus was mutating, experts say
Stoltenberg calls for more weapons for Ukraine
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on NATO member states to supply more weapons to Ukraine, according to an interview cited by Reuters.
"I call on allies to do more. It is in all our security interests to make sure Ukraine prevails and Putin does not win," Stoltenberg told German news agency DPA.
He said it was perhaps even more important that Ukraine receive enough ammunition for the systems already in place, adding that the need for ammunition and spare parts was "enormous".
Stoltenberg emphasized that military support for Ukraine was the fastest way to peace.
"We know that most wars end at the negotiating table — probably this war too — but we know that what Ukraine can achieve in these negotiations depends inextricably on the military situation," he said.
Biden signed a bill authorizing aid to Ukraine while on vacation
President Joe Biden on Thursday signed a $1.7 trillion federal spending bill that includes roughly $45 billion in assistance to Ukraine and NATO allies, CNN writes.
"It’ll invest in medical research, safety, veteran health care, disaster recovery, (Violence Against Women Act) funding — and gets crucial assistance to Ukraine," Biden wrote in a tweet.
The legislation includes $858 billion in defense funding.
Biden signed the bill while vacationing on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. The bill was flown to him for signing, the White House said.
It’s at least the second time this year that an important bill has been flown to Biden for his signature. While on a trip to Asia in May, a bill authorizing about $40 billion in aid to Ukraine was carried by a staffer. Biden signed the bill while in South Korea.
Xi and Putin deepen their cooperation, although it became harder for China to support Russia
On Friday, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin met via video conference, CNN reports.
In opening remarks broadcast by Russian television, Putin invited Xi to visit Moscow next spring. He added that the two countries would strengthen cooperation between their armed forces, and pointed to growth in trade despite "unfavorable market conditions."
Xi also delivered opening remarks, saying "against the background of a difficult international situation, China is ready to increase political cooperation with Russia" and to be "global partners."
However, more than 10 months into the full-fledged war, the dynamic between both partners has shifted, experts say.
"China is eager for (the war) to end," said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center. "Xi will try to emphasize the importance of peace to Putin," she added. "As Russia is getting impatient with the lack of progress on the battlefield, the timing is ripening for peace talk in China’s eyes."
China, too, is growing more isolated in its stance toward Russia, said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. In particular, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a harder stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Xi had already shown hints of impatience when he last met with Putin in September at a regional summit in Uzbekistan. At the time, Putin conceded Beijing had "questions and concerns" over the invasion.
But, experts say, China’s domestic situation has also changed significantly in the months since, which could necessitate a different approach to Putin this time around. The country is currently fighting its worst-ever Covid outbreak, while Xi Jinping consolidated power in October by entering a third term.
Sun notes that despite the difficulties with supporting Moscow, China and Russia "are aligned because of geopolitics."
Wu argues that China’s protests, Covid outbreak, and consequent economic toll have placed Xi in a more vulnerable position that could mean less material and outspoken support for Russia.
The Kremlin wants to distract from Ukraine, Kosovo claims
First Deputy Prime Minister of Kosovo Besnik Bislimi claimed that the Kremlin was stoking Serbia-Kosovo tensions to distract from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Politico reports.
Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have escalated in the past week. On Monday, Serbian Defense Minister Miloš Vučević announced the country’s army had been placed in its "highest level of combat readiness" following unverified reports that Kosovar police forces had opened fire on ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo. (Kosovo authorities denied the incident took place.)
Moscow, a close Serbia ally, said on Wednesday that it supported Belgrade.
Bislimi said on Wednesday:
"There is recorded evidence that people in the paramilitary are being supported by the Humanitarian Center, a Russian center. So I think nobody is denying the presence of Russia and the influence of Russia."
According to him, the recent attacks of these troops in Kosovo started at night, and, most probably, heavily drunk people were inside barricades because they were supplied with a lot of alcohol and money, and all this came from the Humanitarian Center.