Here and There: The World Right Now

Health: Latest on the Spread of Omicron 

Omicron, a variant of the virus that causes Covid-19, has spread in the U.S. alongside at least 49 other countries around the world according to The New York Times. On Monday, Texas became the 19th state to detect the variant since the first reported case in the U.S. was identified in California on December 1. This case involved a traveller who returned to San Francisco from South Africa in late November, before South Africa first reported the new variant to the World Health Organization (WHO). Since then, a new wave of Covid-19 infections has surged in the African country, which is experiencing the highest rate of infections since the pandemic started. Scientists say it is likely that Omicron is already spreading undetected in many communities, and expect the number of identified cases to continue to rise. Because the variant contains a significant number of mutations, largely on the spike protein of the virus which most COVID-19 vaccines target, the WHO warned on November 29th that Omicron poses a “very high” risk to public health. Early evidence suggests that the variant may spread quickly but cause less severe symptoms, at least among vaccinated individuals. A high degree of uncertainty, however, remains about Omicron’s transmissibility, resistance to vaccines, and vulnerability to the body’s immune system.



Health/Politics: Overruling of Roe v. Wade Case that Upholded Abortion Law?

Last week, the Supreme Court seemed ready to uphold an abortion law that contradicts the precedent set in Roe v. Wade, according to The New York Times. The law, which was passed in Mississippi in 2018, prohibits almost all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the only abortion clinic in the state, immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law, which resulted in a federal court blocking the law from going into effect. In oral arguments heard last Wednesday, however, a majority of the Supreme Court’s conservative justices signalled they were willing to at least significantly cut down on the protections established in Roe v. Wade, a landmark 1973 decision of the Court, which recognized a constitutional right to an abortion and prohibited states from banning the procedure before a fetus reaches viability. The Court is not expected to rule on the case until June, and it remains unclear whether the Court will only roll back or outright overturn Roe v. Wade. Were Roe to be overruled, though, nearly a dozen states with Republican-controlled legislatures have “trigger laws” which would make abortions illegal almost immediately, while other states would likely rush laws outlawing abortion through the legislature. In total, almost 24 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, would be expected to take away legal access to an abortion, while only 15 states and the District of Columbia currently have laws that protect access to an abortion without Roe. 



Politics: Olaf Scholz, Germany’s Next Chancellor

On December 8, Olaf Scholz, former Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Finance in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet was sworn in as the new Chancellor of Germany, leading the first three-party coalition in postwar history to govern the country. His chancellorship comes months after Scholz led his Social Democratic Party to unexpectedly win a plurality of the vote in the last election. The Social Democratic Party’s narrow win in late September was the first time the party has won an election since Merkel, whom Scholz will replace, came to power. Now, following months of negotiations, the progressive Greens and pro-business Free Democratic Party have agreed to a three-way coalition deal. The coalition’s plans include raising the minimum wage, building hundreds of thousands of homes, and accelerating the country’s transition to a carbon-neutral economy. In another sign of the transition to German politics Scholz’s ascendance spells, he will be leading Germany’s first gender-equal cabinet in history.