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Forecast Podcast: Countries lock down as latest coronavirus variant puts health officials on edge

Photo of COVID-19 measures at South African National Parks.

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Show notes:

Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Bada Kim discuss the new coronavirus variant that’s got the whole world on edge, plus more on European Union sanctions against Belarus, a presidential election in The Gambia, a possible verdict in the trial of Myanmar’s deposed leader and Russia’s Putin visiting India.

These stories and more are also available in our weekly Forecast email and you can subscribe for free.

This episode was produced with work from Factal editors Joe Veyera, Sophie Perryer, Imana Gunawan, Irene Villora and Bada Kim.  Music courtesy of Andrew Gospe


This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.


Welcome to the Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories and what they mean from the editors at Factal. I’m Jimmy Lovaas.

Today is December 2nd.

In this week’s forecast we’ve got European Union sanctions against Belarus, a presidential election in The Gambia, a possible verdict in the trial of Myanmar’s deposed leader, Russia’s Putin visiting India and a look at the new coronavirus variant. 

You can also read about all these stories and more in our weekly newsletter, which you can find a link to in the show notes.

EU sanctions against Belarus take effect

Information compiled by Joe Veyera

JIMMY: The latest round of sanctions levied by the European Union against Belarus are expected to take effect Thursday. That is, according to Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets.

It was just several weeks ago that European officials accused Belarus of “trafficking” migrants from the Middle East toward the country’s border with Poland — a move they say is in response to earlier sanctions levied in the wake of Belarus’s 2020 election and crackdown on opposition figures. 

And though Belarusian leaders deny the latest allegations, President Alexander Lukashenko said the country won’t stop migrants from attempting to enter the EU. 

Still, in recent days repatriation flights have taken place, but thousands of migrants remain at the border even after some camps were cleared.  

Now, approximately 30 people and entities are expected to be targeted by the new sanctions, which include the freezing of assets and travel bans. The United States is also reportedly planning to apply its own penalties in the near future.

The Gambia presidential election

Information compiled by Sophie Perryer

JIMMY: Gambians will go to the polls Saturday in an election seen as the first test of the country’s democratic transition since President Yahya Jammeh was ousted in 2016.

Of course, Jammeh, who came to power in 1994 during a military coup, was accused of a litany of human rights abuses and financial corruption during his 22-year term. 

He was then unseated by political newcomer Adama Barrow in 2016, but he refused to accept the election result, triggering a power crisis which culminated in Jammeh fleeing the country. 

And now President Barrow has sparked suspicion among some voters by running for re-election after originally only expected to serve as transitional leader for three years. 

He faces five opponents.

Now, the outcome of the election will likely impact the release of a report by the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, which was set up by President Barrow to examine human rights abuses under Jammeh’s regime. 

Barrow received the report on November 25th but has yet to make it public, and it’s unclear whether he will do so before Saturday. 

Meanwhile the commission has refused to publish a list of people it recommends for prosecution, instead leaving the government to act on its recommendations. 

Amnesty International called on all candidates to “break with the country’s past” and improve the “human rights situation” if elected.

Possible verdict in Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial

Information compiled by Imana Gunawan

JIMMY: A trial for Myanmar’s deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi is expected to continue Tuesday. 

The court in capital Naypyidaw had been scheduled to deliver a verdict on November 30th on charges of incitement and violating coronavirus restrictions, but adjourned the proceedings until Tuesday. 

No official reason has been announced for the postponement and it’s unclear if the verdict will be issued on December 6th.

A legal official said the court will allow testimony from an additional witness when the trial resumes. That witness is a senior member of Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy party.

Of course, last Tuesday, Suu Kyi and ousted President U Win Myint also received a sixth charge of corruption, each of which is punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment.

Now, if found guilty of incitement, Suu Kyi faces three years in prison. 

And a guilty verdict would likely regalvanize the protest movement that broke out following the February coup but has since dwindled due to a violent military crackdown that’s killed more than 1,000 civilians. 

Despite severe restrictions on nonviolent demonstrations, armed resistance has grown in the cities and the countryside, prompting the United Nations experts to warn of a potential civil war.

Putin visits India

Information compiled by Irene Villora

JIMMY: Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to New Delhi on Monday for his annual bilateral summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The foreign and defense ministers of both countries will also hold talks. 

However, this will be the first in-person summit between Russia and India since 2019. 

In the past two years, both leaders have opted for consistent telephone talks to set the basis for this summit. 

Modi and Putin are expected to discuss ways to strengthen ties on defense, trade and energy. 

What’s more, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that this round of talks will also focus on regional security in the Asia-Pacific region, the situation in Afghanistan and the conflict in Syria. 

Talks on trilateral relations with China are also going to be held. 

Now, this meeting is expected to result in the signing of several documents on trade, investment, science and technology. But it’s also expected to bring a renewal of military cooperation agreements for another decade. 

The renewal will allow both countries’ militaries to use each other’s bases for technical repairs and restocking of supplies. 

During the visit, India will also receive S-400 missile system supplies from Russia in a move that could prompt the United States to impose sanctions.

New coronavirus variant

Information compiled by Bada Kim

JIMMY: Our last item for this forecast is on the new coronavirus variant that’s got the whole world on edge. For more on that I recently spoke with Factal Managing Editor Bada Kim.

JIMMY: Hey there, Bada. 

BADA: Hey Jimmy. 

JIMMY: Well, Bada, after six months of dealing with the Delta variant things we’re starting to look up, but now it’s starting to look like we might have yet another coronavirus variant to be worried about. What can you tell us about this new one that the WHO has apparently designated a variant of concern?

BADA: Just in time for holidays, too, right? So this variant, B.1.1.529, or Omicron, is a new strain of coronavirus. It was labeled a “variant of concern” on November 24th and this was after South African scientists alerted the WHO to its high number of mutations and how quickly it’s spread among young people. I’m afraid not much else is known at the moment. The WHO says it could take “weeks” before we know whether it really is more contagious or makes people more seriously ill or whether our current vaccines are ineffective against it. They did say, though, the early evidence suggests a higher risk of reinfection, hence posing a “very high” global risk.

JIMMY: You know, a lot has been made about the Omicron variant coming from South Africa, but I’ve seen reports that it was already in Europe. Do we know where it came from? And I guess for that matter, does it actually even matter?

BADA: So yes, it was South African scientists that first alerted the WHO to this variant. And because of this, countries moved really fast to restrict travel from several Southern African nations; some even banned entry. And this was even before recommendations by the WHO. It has since emerged, though, that Dutch officials found traces of these variants in samples taken almost a week before South Africa flagged it. So it may already have been in Europe a while ago, which adds a new twist to the questions about its origins. Now, does it matter? Probably from a scientific perspective, you know, the more we know about how it happened the better chance we have of stopping it. And right now, that seems to be the focus. Countries around the world have reintroduced various restrictions and pharmaceutical companies have started research into whether current vaccines are sufficient and whether we would need new ones.

JIMMY: As you said, some governments have imposed new restrictions. But, how else have governments responded to this new concern?

BADA: So yeah, countries moved really fast this time. Perhaps lessons were learned from earlier variants like Delta. Many reimposed existing restrictions for its people, like wearing masks, for example, but at least three dozen countries have placed some sort of travel restrictions for those coming from South Africa and a few of its neighboring countries. Of course, this was not well received. The South African foreign ministry criticized the bans, calling it a punishment for their science and transparency. And the WHO chief also cautioned against it, but very little has changed. Only France has since repealed their ban, replacing it with multiple tests before and after arrival, and a strict quarantine on top.

JIMMY: Yeah, reactions to Omicron have been rather swift. Seems like a lot of folks are concerned that this variant could evade vaccines. Do we know yet if that’s a possibility, or when do we think we might know?

BADA: So research is underway but many leading pharmaceutical companies have said it could be up to two weeks before we know anything really. Pfizer and BioNTech say they are confident that they can rework their current vaccines and Moderna is also working on adjusting its boosters to protect against multiple variants.

JIMMY: Well, that’s good news. I guess my last question for you is, you know, what should folks be watching for next?

BADA: We should keep an eye out for further anti-coronavirus restriction protests, a lot of which have turned quite violent lately — the Netherlands and Martinique to name a few. With measures back in place in many countries we could see increased violence at these demonstrations. And, of course, the crowding at such events, they pose an increased risk of transmissions themselves.

JIMMY: Certainly something we’ll want to keep an eye out for. Thanks for the insight, Bada. I know you’ll be following the situation carefully. I appreciate it.

BADA: Thanks, Jimmy. 

JIMMY: Take care

JIMMY: Today’s episode was produced with work from Factal editors Joe Veyera, Sophie Perryer, Imana Gunawan and Irene Villora. Our interview featured editor Bada Kim and our music comes courtesy of Andrew Gospe.

Until next time, thanks for listening to the Factal Forecast. We publish our forward-looking podcast each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead. You can, of course, subscribe for free. And if you have feedback, suggestions or events we’ve missed, drop us a note by emailing

This transcript may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability not guaranteed. 

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Music: ‘Factal Theme’ courtesy of Andrew Gospe