Your Tuesday Briefing – The New York Times

The Omicron variant spreads quickly, but the resulting infection may be less severe than other forms of the coronavirus. Researchers in South Africa said that their Covid-19 wards were almost unrecognizable from previous phases of the pandemic, with few patients on oxygen machines.

A report from doctors at a major hospital complex in Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital, said that coronavirus patients with the variant were less sick than those they had treated before. Most of their infected patients were admitted for other reasons and had no Covid symptoms. The findings are preliminary, however, and have not been peer-reviewed.

Scientists cautioned against placing too much stock in either the potential good news of less severity, or bad news like early evidence that previous infection offers little immunity to Omicron. The variant was discovered just last month, and hospitalizations and deaths often lag outbreaks considerably. Still, Covid deaths have not yet risen in South Africa despite surging case numbers.

By the numbers: Of the 166 patients with the coronavirus admitted from Nov. 14 to Nov. 29 to the hospital complex, the average stay was 2.8 days, and fewer than 7 percent died. Over the previous 18 months, the average stay for such patients was 8.5 days, and 17 percent died.

Olaf Scholz will be sworn in tomorrow as Germany’s ninth postwar chancellor, the first Social Democrat in 16 years to hold the position. He will lead a three-party coalition government with the progressive Greens and the libertarian Free Democrats.

Defying polls and pundits, Scholz led his 158-year-old party from the precipice of irrelevance to an unlikely victory. Now, he wants to show that the center-left can again become a political force in Europe and to further repair the bridge between the Social Democrats and the working class in Germany. Just over 800,000 voters who had abandoned the party for the far left and far right returned in the last election.

Across the E.U., Social Democrats govern in nine of the 27 member states, and lessons from Germany are already proving influential. In France, the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who recently announced her own long-shot presidential bid, has evoked the “respect” theme that became the centerpiece of the Scholz campaign.

Background: Once a fiery young socialist who joined his party as a teenager, Scholz has gradually mellowed into a post-ideological centrist. Today he is considered to be to the right of much of the party’s base, not unlike President Biden, with whom he is sometimes compared.

Cabinet: The incoming German cabinet will, for the first time, have gender parity, with eight women and eight men.

President Biden will attend a video meeting today with Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, in what is most likely the U.S. president’s highest-stakes leader-to-leader conversation since his term began. The conversation may set the course for Ukraine’s fate as a fully independent nation.

Biden will tell the Russian president that if he orders his forces to invade Ukraine, Western allies may move to cut off Russia from the international financial system, administration officials said.

In recent weeks, Ukrainians have warned that Russia is erecting the architecture for significant military action, even a full-fledged invasion. U.S. intelligence officials have assessed that Moscow has drawn up plans for an offensive involving an estimated 175,000 troops to begin as early as next year.

Battle plan: If a full-on attack occurs, Ukrainian forces are as ready to face it as they’ve ever been, a Ukrainian commander said. But without significant assistance from Western countries, specifically the U.S., they will not be able to hold off the Russian military.

The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard can seem both ethereal and eternal to visitors. But climate change all but guarantees an eventual collapse of its vulnerable ecosystem.

The Times’s chief film critics, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, put together their lists of the best movies of the past 12 months — films that, in the words of Scott, “reward your attention, engage your feelings and respect your intelligence.” Here’s a selection from their picks.

“Summer of Soul,” a music documentary by Questlove, features performance footage from a series of open-air concerts in Harlem in 1969 along with interviews with musicians and audience members. It’s “a shot of pure joy,” Scott writes.

Dargis recommends watching “The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion’s long-awaited feature, especially on the big screen. “Like all the movies I love, ‘The Power of the Dog’ got under my skin,” she writes. “I watched it, fell into it, felt it. And like all the movies I care most about, it is far more than the sum of its finely shaped story parts.”

With “West Side Story,” Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner — and an energetic young cast of Jets and Sharks — pulled off a surprising cinematic coup. “Respecting the artistry and good intentions of the original stage musical, they turned it into something urgent, modern and exciting,” Scott writes.

Read more about the year’s best movies.

That’s it for today’s briefing. Thanks for joining me. — Natasha

P.S. Ellen Barry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times correspondent, is joining the Science desk to report on mental health.

The latest episode of “The Daily” is about Jeffrey Epstein’s associate Ghislaine Maxwell.

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

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