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Dozens of Protestors Killed, More than 1K Injured in Kazakhstan; Djokovic Won't Know Until Monday if He Can Defend Title; Biden Condemns Trump as a Threat to Democracy; India Reports 117,000 New Daily Cases; Growing Outcry Over Mishandling of Xi'an Lockdown; Argentina Sees Record COVID Cases for Third Day; China-Europe Trade Route Returns to Economic Relevance. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired January 07, 2022 - 00:00   ET


MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Michael Holmes. Appreciate your company.


Coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM, Russian troops now on the ground, inside of Kazakhstan. Hoping to put down violent protests in the former Soviet republic.

Supporters of Novak Djokovic come to defense of the world's No. 1 tennis player, claiming he's the victim for not following Australia's vaccination rules.

And President Joe Biden lashes out at Donald Trump on the anniversary of the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's not just the former president. He's the defeated former president.


ANNOUNCER: Live from CNN Center, this is CNN NEWSROOM with Michael Holmes.

HOLMES: And we begin in Kazakhstan, where CNN has learned that dozens of protesters have been killed in anti-government rallies that have been sweeping the nation. A police official says they died in clashes with security forces in the largest city, Almaty.

The health ministry telling local media that more than 1,000 people were, quote, "injured" in different regions across the country.

More clashes broke out in Almaty on Thursday, with security forces firing on protestors. This is according to a Russian state news agency.

Meanwhile, Moscow now has boots on the ground in Kazakhstan with what's being described as a peacekeeping force from an alliance of former Soviet states. Kazakhstan's president appeared for help, following days of unrest over spiking fuel prices.

The group says its mission will be short and limited in scope, but Washington calls the deployment questionable, since Kazakhstan has its own security resources. The European Union and Britain appealing for calm.


NABILA MASSRALI, SPOKESPERSON, EUROPEAN COMMISSION: We condemn acts of violence, acts of vandalism, and looting, which have taken place. And, we regret any loss of life. The violence must stop.

LIZ TRUSS, BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY: We condemn the acts of violence and the destruction of property in Almaty. And we will be coordinating further with our allies on what further steps we should take.


HOLMES: Authorities now say they are back in control of all government buildings in Kazakhstan's largest city, and have the streets -- and the streets are being cleared of protesters.

CNN's Nic Robertson reports now on the crackdown and its aftermath.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR (voice-over): On Almaty streets, in a hard-to-verify social media post, an ugly overnight crackdown. People scream and scurry for cover. Panic, as well as bullets, in the air.

"They're dead. They're dead," a man says. A motionless body just out of safe reach, stretched out on the freezing ground.

In the same city, the country's biggest, protesters fought pitched battles with uniformed forces, casualties accumulating on both sides.

Law enforcement appearing to gain the upper hand, with arrests and killings. Police claim they took deadly action overnight, describing as an as-yet unverified, shadowy, shoot first, ask questions later crackdown.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Last night, extremist forces attempted to storm the administrative buildings and police department in the city of Almaty. Dozens of attackers were eliminated, and their identities are still being verified.

ROBERTSON: The mayor's burnt-out office in Almaty, apparent testimony to the ferocity of the battles fought.

Without offering proof, the Kazakh president claiming protesters are foreign-backed terrorists, an often-used trope to deflect blame that the Russian government is also repeating. A characterization rejected by protesters.

"We're neither thugs nor terrorists," this woman says. "The only thing flourishing here is corruption."

"We want the truth," this protestor says. "The government is rich, but all of these people here have loans to pay. We have our pain, and we want to share it."


But truth and facts here are in short supply. The Internet, down for a second day. Residents reporting a scary quiet. Braving government warnings to stay indoors, to go out in search for open shops to buy essentials.

Russian state media, reporting heavily on allegedly rampant looting by some protesters, as well as highlighting violence against Kazakh law enforcement.

As part of a regional security agreement, Russian paratroopers began deploying to guard state and military facilities, the fourth consecutive day of protest.

Gunfire and explosions still rocking Almaty.

Nic Robertson, CNN, Moscow.


HOLMES: Joining me now from Washington is Paul Stronski. He's a senior fellow in Carnegie's Russia and Eurasia program.

And appreciate you taking the time. Ostensibly, this started with a doubling in the price of liquid petroleum gas. But what are the deeper issues at play?

PAUL STRONSKI, SENIOR FELLOW, CARNEGIE'S RUSSIA AND EURASIA PROGRAM: Yes, you're right. This spark of unrest, was this gas price increase. But what really is -- is the cause, and that's caused this to spread around the entire country, was a tremendous disconnect between the governing elites and the political elites in the country, and the everyday life that people are experiencing.

This is a country that has tremendous hydrocarbon oil and gas wealth, but that money is -- that wealth is not distributed evenly among the population. So you have tremendous wealth, and people who spend their time in places like Dubai and London. And then, you have also people who are really struggling to get by on a daily basis.

HOLMES: Right. And so to that point, how have Kazakhstan's leaders, not just the current ones, but the ones before, how have they miscalculated? Not just in the handling of the protests, but the management of those issues that caused anger in the first place? They -- they sort of messed it up, didn't they? They misread.

STRONSKI: They really did misread, and the country has a lot going for it. It's a very highly-educated population. It's got a lot of natural resources. And what the -- the country has -- you know, like most former Soviet

countries, corruption is a huge problem. Rule of law is a huge problem. And as the oil wealth and life started getting better in the 19 -- you know, early 2000s, late 1990s, the government started making the population promises. Promises that -- that their socioeconomic life would get better, promises that they would open up the political system, promises that they'd have a greater say in, at least, how their local affairs were done.

But each and every time they made these promises, they never really quite delivered.

HOLMES: Right.

STRONSKI: So you don't have fair elections, and we've never seen fair elections in Kazakhstan, even down to the local level. And, you know corruption. To get some of the basic services that a lot of the other, rest of the world takes for granted, you need to pay extra for them. And so there's this real disconnect.

HOLMES: Moving forward, then, you know, at the invitation of Kazakhstan, there are now Russian, quote unquote, "peacekeepers." What are the potential implications of -- of those foreign boots on the ground?

STRONSKI: Well, what's very strange about -- about this, you know, these are -- these are Russian peacekeepers. They're under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. This is an organization that has existed in -- for 30 years, but it has never deployed its troops anywhere.

And so the fact that they were deployed within a manner of -- of just hours after the violence broke out is really unprecedented. And it is, in some ways, a little bit worrying.

You know, we are seeing a -- a brand -- fairly recently-installed leader in Kazakhstan, President Tokayev. He's been there for just about two years. And he clearly, he was seen as slightly weaker.

And as these protests really erupted and turned violent, he seemed to, you know, not rely on his own services but to turn to Russia. And that raises a whole lot of questions about, you know, what sort of agreement he's -- he has with -- with Russia.

HOLMES: You've written with Carnegie -- I was reading it earlier, that systemic and real reform is needed. And that if the government doesn't learn from its mistakes, this situation isn't going to get -- isn't going to defuse. Quite the opposite. What would happen if there aren't substantial changes?

STRONSKI: Well, I think, you know, the first issue that the Kazakh government needs to do, is it needs to actually restore peace on the street.


You know, Kazakhs, average Kazakhs are actually appalled by the street violence, and they don't support -- support that.

But, you know, the government has promised them that they would, you know, open up media space, open up space for greater civil society activity, and really clamp down on those issues that really vex the average person. And those include corruption, corruption in everyday life that people experience, but also, the tremendous corruption that people witness of all money leaving out -- leaving the country, by the wealthy.

They need to sort of address that wealth gap. There's a huge gap between sort of the urban, rich centers and the rest of the country.

And they really need to sort of put in some -- some, you know, greater rule of law. I mean, I think the -- the -- so these are changes. Kazakhstan has talked about them for years. They might change them on paper, but the -- the implementation of them has been a long-standing problem. And, I think the Kazakh -- many Kazakh people have just gotten a little bit fed up with it.

HOLMES: Thank you, Paul. Really appreciate that.

STRONSKI: Yes. Thank you.

HOLMES: The Australian Open is just 10 days away. But whether defending champion Novak Djokovic will compete is far from certain.

He was denied entry into Australia for allegedly not meeting vaccination requirements and could be deported.

His wife, Jelena, expressed her anguish on social media in the past few hours, admitting that she needs to take, quote, "a deep breath to calm down."

It will be at least Monday before an Australian court decides whether Djokovic can compete for his 10th Australian Open title and what would be a record 21st Grand Slam, or, alternatively, be kicked out of the country.

CNN's Phil Black with the latest.





PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At a rally in Serbia's capital, a huge crowd joined Novak Djokovic's family, demanding freedom for a national hero.

SRDAN DJOKOVIC, NOVAK DJOKOVIC'S FATHER (through translator): They are holding him captive. Our Novak. Our pride. Novak is Serbia, and Serbia is Novak.

BLACK: His mother's emotions are more personal.

DIJANA DJOKOVIC, NOVAK DJOKOVIC'S MOTHER: Terrible. Since yesterday, the last 24 hours. They are keeping him as a prisoner. It's just not fair. It's not human.

BLACK: This is the drab building in Melbourne, Australia, where Djokovic is now, reportedly, confined. A hotel recently used to quarantine returning travelers, now housing asylum seekers and the world's No. 1 tennis player.

D. DJOKOVIC: Terrible conditions. It's just some small immigration hotel, as we can -- if it's hotel at all, with some bugs (ph) with -- it's so dirty. And the food is so terrible.

BLACK: Outside that hotel, Melbourne's Serbian community is rallying, too, furious at Djokovic's treatment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Freedom for Djokovic today and forever.

BLACK: There's less concern for Djokovic from one of his greatest rivals, the sixth-ranked Rafael Nadal.

RAFAEL NADAL, 20-TIME GRAND SLAM WINNER: If he wanted, he would be playing here in Australia without a problem. Now, he went through another. He makes his own positions, and everybody -- he's free to take the own positions. But then, there are some consequences.

BLACK: The consequences in this case could alter the future of world- class tennis.

Spain's Nadal, Djokovic, and the Swiss player, Roger Federer, have each won 20 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer isn't playing in the Australian Open. So if Djokovic is deported, that would leave Nadal with an easier run to, potentially, win his 21st title, statistically coming the greatest of all time.

Nadal, unlike Djokovic, is open and proud of his vaccination status.

NADAL: I believe in one -- in what the people who knows about medicine says. And the people says that we need to get vaccinated. We need to get -- we need to get the vaccine. That's my point of view.

BLACK: This picture shows Djokovic at Melbourne Airport's passport control shortly after his arrival, trying, and ultimately failing, to convince border officials he should be allowed into the country.

His lawyers will argue the case again before a Melbourne court on Monday. But even if they're successful, there's little chance of calming Australia's public and political outrage.

BARNABY JOYCE, AUSTRALIAN DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Sometimes, I get a sense that people who make a lot of money start believing they've evolved, somehow, above the laws of the land, whether you like them or not.

BLACK: Phil Black, CNN, London. (END VIDEOTAPE)


HOLMES: And CNN's Angus Watson is following this story for us from Sydney. And yes, it's interesting. Novak Djokovic, not his normal accommodations for the weekend. But he's hardly a prisoner, is he?

ANGUS WATSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, that's right, Michael. I mean, we saw there those incredible scenes of protests in Belgrade, people coming out in support of Novak Djokovic, including his mother, who had some very firm words for Australia about the kind of treatment that he says he's being subjected to.

He is in an immigration detention facility. It's a repurposed hotel. It was a hotel that was being used for Australians returning from overseas to quarantine through the darkest days of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. That system has now been done away with here in Australian, and we're allowing people to come in if they're double vaccinated.

That's been Novak Djokovic's big problem. He hasn't been willing to say publicly whether he's been vaccinated or not. He applied for these exemption papers to get in, and they were rejected, Michael.

So there he is, the world's No. 1 men's tennis player, in an immigration detention facility in central Melbourne. We saw those pictures in Phil Black's package just then from Belgrade. Seems similar in Melbourne right now, where people have come out, particularly from the Serbian community, there in Melbourne to support him, to show their support for their star.

But -- and he could be there until at least Monday, when his court case is filed for an injunction to try to stop his deportation. That's not being heard again until Monday. So we could remain in there for days, if that's the way that he wants to go down.

However, Australia's minister in charge for borders says that it's up to him. He could leave right now if he wanted to just give up and go home. Here's what she had to say.


KAREN ANDREWS, AUSTRALIAN HOME AFFAIRS MINISTER: Mr. Djokovic is not being held captive in Australia. He is free to leave at anytime that he chooses to do so, and Border Force will actually facilitate that.


WATSON: So the government there saying that if he wants to go, he can, Michael. Instead, he's going to try to fight that. Tennis Australia wants its star player to, of course, compete in the Australian Open when it begins on the 17th of January. They're hoping that they might get a favorable decision in the courts.

That would have egg on the face of the government if, for some reason, he was allowed to stay, Michael.

HOLMES: Yes, and what about these reports of two others who apparently successfully got in, using the same exemption? I think it's a player and an official. What do we know about that?

WATSON: Well, Michael, we heard from Karen Andrews, that home affairs minister that we just heard from then, saying that there are, in fact, two other people associated with the Australian Open that also applied for medical exemptions to get in.

Novak Djokovic is, of course, the most -- one of the most visible people in world sports. When he went ahead a couple of days with a post saying he's got the exemption and he's on his way to Australia, that really perked the attention of officials here in Australia. And they really went out to make sure that he had dotted all the "I's" and crossed all the "T's" on his exemption to try to get into this country unvaccinated.

Perhaps some others that were traveling for the Australian Open didn't quite get that amount of scrutiny put on them. The government saying that it will make sure that everybody who comes in is properly accounted for, their vaccination status is properly accounted for, and these two more people, the government has in their sights, Michael. We don't know exactly who they are just yet.

HOLMES: All right. Angus, appreciate the reporting. Angus Watson there in Sydney for us.

And Ben Rothenberg, the senior editor at "Racquet" magazine, joins me now from Melbourne. And good to have you on, Ben.

I suppose that the obvious question is, how on earth did the Victorian, the federal government, and Tennis Australia not get their heads together on whether the world's No. 1 tennis player could come to the Australian Open until he'd already landed in the country?

BEN ROTHENBERG, SENIOR EDITOR, "RACQUET" MAGAZINE: It really is remarkable that someone so high-profile, Novak Djokovic's vaccine status, has been getting lots of attention and lots of speculation for months. But it wasn't a consensus opinion on what the decision on him was going to be between the local authorities and between the federal immigration authorities until after he'd already gotten a plane.

It really did seem like the federal immigration authorities were very surprised by this news that he put out on social media that he had gotten an exemption, and he was coming to the country shortly. And they sprung into action and tried to rally a defense. And as the previous guest said, have much more scrutiny on his case than it otherwise would have been.

It's just surprising that, before he got the plane, that Tennis Australia, as the tournament facilitator, didn't do more, perhaps, to liaise with the federal government and make sure that everything was going to be OK for Novak Djokovic upon arrival. Because he certainly didn't get the welcome mat that he expected. HOLMES: Yes, or that he's used to. Melbourne, of course, has been one

of the most locked-down cities in the world at times. Quite apart from the bureaucratic stuff, what would have been the public reaction, if he had walked into the country and played?

ROTHENBERG: There was a great deal of anger in Australia nationally, and especially locally in Victoria and in Melbourne when Djokovic's exemption news came out. People were very resentful of that.


This country -- this city has been through incredibly intense lockdowns, repeatedly. And really has taken pride in following the rules and doing a lot of sacrifice in order to try to power through the pandemic as a collective as best possible.

So having a rich, famous person from overseas being seen as being able to get around those rules and sacrifices for something as relatively trivial as a tennis tournament when many have not been able to see dying loved ones in other states and things like that here really rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

And he became a very attractive punching bag, I think, knowing that sentiment for a lot of politicians down here who can score points by trying to be standing up to Djokovic.

HOLMES: And I guess, I mean -- he's no dummy. How much blame does he, he himself, shoulder? It's not like he hasn't known the rules in Australia for months. Rafael Nadal sort of alluded to that.

ROTHENBERG: I think the blame certainly originates with Djokovic, because for the simple reason he chose not to get vaccinated, which put him on this much more difficult course than most of his peers.

We know 95 -- at least 95 of the top hundred in the ATP rankings have been vaccinated now. And so Djokovic is in a very small minority there, making life tough for himself.

And then also, you know, there have been other people who have gotten in with the exemption, they've heard. But what they're reporting locally has been is that Djokovic showed up with much flimsier documentation than other people had. The other people who came in with the exemption had far more doctor's notes, and Djokovic only had one sort of less official-looking medical document and some letters of support from Tennis Australia. He didn't have the robust papers ready to prove his status, where others did.

Added to that, the increased scrutiny he gets from his stature and also his pre-announcing his exemption before his rival, and he really just wasn't up to the task of making it through border security, as it turned out.

HOLMES: Yes. Politics and health matters aside, if he doesn't play -- turn tennis writer now -- how does that open up the field?

ROTHENBERG: It really does. I mean, Djokovic is a close to prohibitive favorite in Australia. He's won this tournament nine times. It's been his happiest place on tour, for sure. He's won three of the four Grand Slams last year coming within one match of winning the Grand Slam.

So without him in the picture, if he does, indeed, not play, and he still has not withdrawn from the tournament. But it would be tough for him to be competitive there at this point with everything going on. U.S. Open champ Daniil Medvedev is No. 2; would have a pretty good shot and could get to the No. 1 ranking, I believe, with Djokovic out the picture.

Gold medalist last year, Alexander Zverev, and obviously, Rafael Nadal, who's already a 20-time Grand Slampion [SIC], could -- Grand Slam champion, could move into sole possession of that record with one more title here.

HOLMES: And real quick, we heard a little bit from Rafael Nadal there, but what are other players saying? I mean, nobody wants to pile onto a colleague here, but it doesn't seem like there's a ton of sympathy among his fellow players.

ROTHENBERG: There's sympathy, certainly, for his predicament. I think people, you know, on a human level can sympathize with someone who is, you know, held at the airport for eight hours in a room, and is stuck in a quarantine -- you know, a detainment hotel. That's obviously someone they know -- largely know and like in the locker room, and they're sad to see this happening to someone.

But at the same time, I think they thought very -- looked very askance at his exemption initially, though it was probably star treatment that only a player of his statue would be able to get, to sort of be above the rules, in their perception. And I think they don't necessarily think that exemption was just, so that they probably don't think the current treatment is just either.

So a mix of feelings, for sure, when it comes to Djokovic among his peers right now.

HOLMES: Right. Ben Rothenberg there in Melbourne. Appreciate it. We'll talk to you next hour, as well. Thanks so much.

ROTHENBERG: Thank you.

HOLMES: North Korea says it will not attend the Beijing Winter Olympics. State media reports it is due to, quote, "hostile forces" and the coronavirus pandemic.

North Korea also accuses the U.S. and its allies of trying to prevent a successful opening of the Olympics. Possibly a reference to diplomatic boycotts.

The Beijing Winter Olympics now less than a month away. The games kick off February 4.

Stay with us. Coming up on CNN NEWSROOM, the World Health Organization weighs in on the risks posed by Omicron, as COVID cases continue to skyrocket across the globe. Why the WHO chief says the variant shouldn't be called mild, even if it does cause less severe illness. We'll explain that one.

Also, a blistering attack from U.S. President Joe Biden. After the break, we'll tell you who he says is holding a dagger to the throat of democracy. You might be able to guess.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I did not seek this fight, brought to this Capitol one year ago today, but I will not shrink from it either.




HOLMES: The U.S. is marking one year since the violent attack on the Capitol that left several people dead and shook the foundations of democracy.

Most Democratic members of Congress held a candlelight vigil on the Capitol steps.

A mob of Trump supporters stormed the building on January 6th of last year, hoping to prevent the certification of Joe Biden's election as president. All of it based on false claims by Trump that the election was rigged, that there had been fraud, and the presidency was stolen from him. None of it, of course, true.

Well, President Joe Biden spoke out forcefully against his predecessor on Thursday, without ever actually mentioning his name.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports.


BIDEN: I will stand in this breach. I will defend this nation. I will allow no one to place a dagger at the throat of democracy.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Biden opening a new fight to preserve the nation's democracy, delivering a blistering rebuke of former President Trump and Republicans who continue to mislead Americans with lies about the 2020 election.

BIDEN: He's not just the former president. He's a defeated former president. Defeated by a margin of over seven million of your votes, in a full and free, and fair election.

ZELENY: In a stark and somber address on the first anniversary of the Capitol insurrection, Biden stood in Statuary Hall --



ZELENY: -- the very scene of the January 6th attack, and blamed his predecessor for the carnage that day and the fall-out.

BIDEN: You can't love your country only when you win. You can't obey the law only when it's convenient. You can't be patriotic when you embrace and enable lies.

ZELENY: The president did not mention Trump's name, by design. But assailed his predecessor for doing nothing to stop the violent assault on the Capitol and Constitution, as Congress was certifying the results of the Electoral College.

BIDEN: What did we not see? We didn't see a former president, who had just rallied the mob to attack, sitting in the private dining room, off the Oval Office in the White House, watching it all on television. And doing nothing, for hours, as police were assaulted, lives at risk, the nation's Capitol under siege.

ZELENY: The morning remarks from the president and vice president --

KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The American spirit is being tested.

ZELENY: -- opened a solemn day to mark one of the darkest periods in the nation's history.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a moment of silence after reminding Americans of the true heroes from the rampage.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): I want to acknowledge our fallen heroes of that day. U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, U.S. Capitol Police Officer Howard Liebengood; Metropolitan Officer Jeffrey Smith; U.S. Capitol Police Officer Billy Evans, of a later assault.

ZELENY: Only two Republicans stood on the House floor: Congresswoman Liz Cheney, a member of the Select Committee investigating the attack, and her father, former vice president, Dick Cheney. It was a symbolic visit that shined an even brighter light on the deep divide inside a Republican Party still led by Trump.


Cheney took aim at the absent GOP leaders.

DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES (audio): It's not a leadership that resembles any of the folks I knew when I was here for 10 years.

ZELENY: Some Republicans are accusing Democrats of politicizing the Capitol attack. Yet many of the GOP rank-and-file were silent, which Biden pointedly took note of.

BIDEN: They seem no longer to want to be the party, the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan, the Bushes. But whatever my other disagreements are with Republicans who support the rule of law and not the rule of a single man, I will always seek to work together with them.

ZELENY: As he left the Capitol, Biden said his sharp words were not intended to divide.

BIDEN: The way you have to heal, you have to recognize the extent of the wound. That's what great nations do. They face the truth, deal with it, and move on.

ZELENY (on camera): And the president said he did not mention Mr. Trump's name by design. He said he did not want this to become a contemporary political battle. He said it was about far more than that.

But the tone was all his. Mr. Biden played a careful hand in writing this speech. He has not spent much time talking about Donald Trump over the last year, but on this historic day, he said it was important to tell the country the truth.

Jeff Zeleny, CNN, the White House.


HOLMES: Coming up here on CNN NEWSROOM, we'll find out what restrictions cities in India are enforcing this weekend, in the hope of slowing the rampant spread of the Omicron variant. We'll be right back.


HOLMES: You're watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Michael Holmes. Appreciate your company.

Now, the highly-contagious Omicron variant of coronavirus is driving global cases to some of the highest levels ever seen. The World Health Organization says new infections increased by 71 percent in the week ending January 2.

But it says deaths decreased by 10 percent during the same period.

A new study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control finds death or severe illness from coronavirus to be rare for those fully vaccinated.

And we should note, the research was conducted before the rise of Omicron.

Meanwhile, as cases skyrocket, the head of the WHO warns against underestimating Omicron's impact.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS, WHO DIRECTOR-GENERAL While Omicron does appear to be less severe, compared to Delta, especially in those vaccinated, it does not mean it should be categorized as mild.

[00:35:12] Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalizing people, and it's killing people. In fact, the tsunami of cases is so huge, and quick, that it is overwhelming health systems around the world.


HOLMES: The WHO chief also stressed the need for vaccines to be distributed more fairly, calling vaccine inequality one of the biggest failures of 2021.

India is seeing its highest case numbers since early June. It just reported more than 117,000 new daily infections.


DR. SURESH KUMAR, MANAGING DIRECTOR, LOK NAYAK PRAKASH NARAYAN HOSPITAL: This number of cases is increasing very rapidly. We have seen that, within two days, the number is doubling.


HOLMES: A weekend curfew starts Saturday in New Delhi. All establishments, except essential services, will be shut.

For more on all of this, I'm joined now by Ramanan Laxminarayan. He is the director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics, And Policy.

Thanks so much for being with us. How, then, would you sum up the COVID situation in India today and -- and the trajectory?

RAMANAN LAXMINARAYAN, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR DISEASE DYNAMICS, ECONOMICS AND POLICY: Well, the trajectory is obviously a very steep rise in cases, as you just heard: 110,000 cases, you know, doubling, literally, every other day.

Because the virus is highly transmissible. There have been, you know, some lockdowns in place in major cities, but there's also an indication that the virus is starting to spread in rural areas, where visibility into the number of cases is much lower.

And surely, the number of cases that have been reported is far lower than the true number of infections, because a lot of people are either not getting tested, because the symptoms are mild, or, because they are testing at home, and therefore, not reporting those infections, then.

HOLMES: I suppose, you know, Omicron, you know, even if it causes less severe illness, that does not mean no illness. And -- and a small percentage of a huge number is still a big number and a problem, isn't it? What's the current pressure on the healthcare system?

LAXMINARAYAN: So far, it has -- it has been modest. It is nowhere near what we saw during the second wave, around nine months ago. But that could change very quickly. If the number of cases goes from the roughly hundred thousand a day,

to you know, 500, 000, or maybe even a million a day that are reported, and if the number of deaths goes up, you know, by the same proportion, then we could start to see pressure on the health system. Although, I have to say that the health system is better prepared this time than it was the last time.

HOLMES: And you know, the thing that seems fairly incredible there have been election rallies, massive ones. More are planned, as there have been at other times during the pandemic, we should say.

How are members of the public meant to react when their political leaders do such things? Hold mass rallies for political purposes, at a time like this?

LAXMINARAYAN: That's a really good question. Because schools have been shut for a very long time, but the political rallies and other mass gatherings have continued.

Now, this was probably an important driver of this very lethal second wave that we saw back in March of 2021. And, you know, one would hope that the same mistake would not be repeated, to put the rallies ahead of public health. But it does seem to be happening in many places.

HOLMES: I think the number is around 64 percent of Indians are fully vaccinated. The government had set the end of 2021 as the target to have all eligible citizens vaccinated, which was pretty optimistic, let's face it. But what more needs to be done on that front? Because there's a complacency in India, isn't there?

LAXMINARAYAN: So to be fair, 64 percent of the eligible population, not of the overall population, but, even so, given India's size, I have to say that the progress on vaccination has been impressive.

Unlike in the United States, where there's significant vaccine hesitancy, the issue here has not really been vaccine supply. It's much more what I would describe as vaccine complacency. That you know, people are just not prioritizing it over other things that they have to do in a day.

But there is no serious opposition to vaccination amongst the public. And the vaccination program, I think, is making very good progress, and will get much further.

Of course, with Omicron, it's clear that vaccination doesn't help prevent infections, but it definitely results, potentially, in less serious infections. And so this is really the only pathway for India to -- to exit the pandemic.

HOLMES: Ramanan Laxminarayan, thanks so much. Really appreciate you. Thank you.

LAXMINARAYAN: Thanks for having me.

HOLMES: Well, India isn't alone in enforcing strict measures over the weekend. Austria also imposing tougher restrictions. Among them, European standard FFP-2 masks will be required outdoors when distancing is impossible.

And proof of vaccination, or recovery, required to enter businesses, restaurants, and cafes. They are hoping the additional measures will help them avoid a lockdown.


KARL NEHAMMER, AUSTRIAN CHANCELLOR (through translator): One worry, which should concern all of us, is that there could be another lockdown. That's why a common effort is needed, now, and no one is excluded from it. Germany is our neighbor, shows that it's certainly possible for both large and small stores to carry out checks.


HOLMES: Now, on Thursday, Austria reported more than 8,200 new cases. Nearly three times above the daily average number of infections just last week.

Coming up here on the program, authorities in Xi'an, China, trying to get a handle on the COVID outbreak there as they face public outcry over the city's strict lockdown. The latest from Hong Kong after the break.


HOLMES: In China, the zero COVID policy is taking its toll on residents. Xi'an, now in its third week of lockdown, faces the country's worst coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic in Wuhan.

There is growing outcry over the harsh measures, social media flooded with harrowing tales of loss and stories of people not getting basic necessities or even medical care.

CNN's Kristie Lu Stout joins me now live from Hong Kong to talk more about it.

And Kristie, the lockdown in Xi'an, this toll that it's taken, and I guess officials are now scrambling to apologize.

KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. That is happening, and it has taken quite a toll for over two weeks now. Thirteen million people in this major metropolis in northern China have been under a hard lockdown. They cannot leave their homes unless it's for a COVID-19 test.

And residents there are still saying that they're finding it very difficult to get food, to get essential supplies, to get even access to lifesaving medical care. That has prompted local officials to apologize, to even get punished. But to many angry Netizens, it's not enough.


STOUT (voice-over): As the Chinese city of Xi'an enters a third week of hard lockdown, a harrowing story of loss and punishment.

(on camera): As we reported earlier, in a graphic video that went viral in China, a pregnant woman was turned away from a hospital in Xi'an, because she didn't have a valid COVID-19 test.

According to the post from a Weibo user who claims to be her niece, the woman is sitting outside the hospital and bleeding so much there is a pool of blood at her feet.


Hours later, she was finally admitted, but ultimately suffered a miscarriage. And we have since learned that hospital officials have been punished.

(voice-over): The head of the Xi'an Gaoxin hospital and its emergency center director have been suspended, the municipal government announced on Thursday.

The director of Xi'an CDC was also issued a disciplinary warning by the municipal government. He apologized and bowed to the patient.

But to angry Netizens in China, it's not enough. One Weibo user accused the government of "only taking actions after tragedies happened."

Another says, "There's no need to sacrifice individuals for the group, because we should be able to protect people's lives."

A top-rated comment adds, "This just goes to show COVID-19 might not kill you, but bureaucrats can."

A metropolis of 13 million, Xi'an has been in hard lockdown since December the 23rd, after more than 200 local COVID-19 cases were detected over two weeks. Residents are forbidden from leaving their homes, unless it's for a COVID test.

A month before the Beijing Olympic Games, local officials have vowed to achieve community zero COVID before beginning to ease the lockdown. But zero COVID has come at a cost.

MATTIE BEKINK, CHINA DIRECTOR, ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT: Measures in Xi'an are China's toughest, on such a scale since really the early days of the pandemic. There are no signs that China will deviate from the dynamic zero COVID approach. Or that this current outbreak has been effectively contained. There are still cases in China every day.

STOUT: Social media has been flooded with cries for help. Residents say they continue to struggle to get food, basic supplies, and medical attention.

(on camera): One user on Xiaohongshu, China's Instagram-like platform, appealed for help after a hospital refused to admit her father, who had just had a heart attack. Why? Because they lived in a medium-risk area of the city. She later writes that her father was allowed in emergency operation,

but quote, "The delay was too long, and rescue failed. I don't have a father anymore."

(voice-over): CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of these videos and posts. The video of the bleeding pregnant women outside Gaoxin hospital was widely shared before it was deleted.

But the cracks in China's zero COVID strategy have been exposed.


STOUT: And Michael, sadly, we have learned that a second pregnant woman in Xi'an has suffered a miscarriage because of delayed access to medical care in this city during lockdown.

The central government in China is now weighing in. The vice premier telling hospitals of Xi'an they cannot turn away patients under any excuses.

But I should add that a hospital worker at Xi'an Gaoxin Hospital told CNN that they initially turned away the first precedent woman, because they were just acting in line with government COVID rules.

Back to you.

HOLMES: Extraordinary. Kristie, thank you. Kristie Lu Stout there in Hong Kong for us.

Well, about 1,200 kilometers away from Xi'an, Beijing is preparing for the Winter Olympics. Despite the growing number of COVID-19 cases, the World Health Organization does not expect any increased risks associated with the games.

The WHO says it is working with Chinese authorities through the International Olympic Committee to ensure a safe operation, and the current measures in place are doing the job.


DR. MIKE RYAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, WHO HEALTH EMERGENCIES PROGRAM: Certainly, at this stage, given the arrangements that have been put in place for the athletes and the -- by the organizers, we don't perceive that there's any particular extra risk in -- in hosting or running the game.


HOLMES: The Winter Olympics will begin February 4 in Beijing.

And now turning our attention to Latin America, Chile will begin offering a fourth vaccine dose next week to residents with compromised immune systems. It will be the first country in the region to do so.

Neighboring Argentina reporting record COVID infections, meanwhile, for the third day in a row. On Thursday, nearly 110,000 new cases were registered.

CNN's Matt Rivers with more.


MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, this has not been a good week for Argentina in terms of this COVID-19 pandemic, and unfortunately, Thursday's new data did not make the situation any better.

Yet another single-day record in terms of cases recorded in a 24-hour period, with Argentinian health officials announcing that more than 109,000 cases have been reported in a single day, the largest such number since this pandemic began.

That brings the overall number of cases to more than six million so far during this pandemic for -- for Argentina.

Thankfully, though, the overall number of deaths, the number of hospitalizations, they are not rising nearly as sharply as the number of cases on a single-day basis. That is very good news and a sign that the vaccination campaign in Argentina, which has vaccinated well over 70 percent of adults in that country, does appear to be having a positive effect.


However, experts in that country warn that, as cases continue to go up, you know, even if the hospitalization rate isn't as high, the sheer volume of cases means that hospitalizations will go up, that deaths will also go up.

Also, experts are saying there could be some hope on the horizon, in terms of the number of cases peaking on a day-to-day basis, maybe beginning to go down at some point soon, hopefully. Although as this expert says, nothing is certain yet.

JORGE GETTNER, BIOCHEMIST (through translator): No one is certain. We're speculating there's a chance that by mid-January, the cure will drop. We're hoping for this scenario because, in addition to vaccines, if we have 200,000 infections a day, logic tells us a big portion of the vulnerable population will go down in two weeks' time. It's still speculation.

RIVERS: And of course. Argentina not the only country in Latin American dealing with a surging number of cases. We've seen cases go shop sharply on a day-to-day basis here in Mexico, with the country's overall death number right around 300,000 now since the start of this pandemic. A horrific milestone for this country in its battle against COVID-19.

Matt Rivers, CNN, Mexico City.


HOLMES: The pandemic has created chaos, of course, in the global supply chain, and now the good old-fashioned freight train is making a comeback. We'll take a look at a trading route that's getting a lot busier.


HOLMES: The British defense ministry sharing details about a rare collision in the north Atlantic more than a year ago.

HMS Northumberland was tracking a Russian submarine near Scotland, when that sub hit a sonar the British warship was towing. A sonar is a sensor that trails behind a ship when it's deployed. It's not clear if the collision was an accident.

The world's second largest economy could soon see new tax cuts. China's premier says they're needed to get the first quarter off to a stable start.

The Chinese government might be looking for ways to boost spending and revive the service sector, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, of course.

The world bank recently lowered its growth forecast from China from 5.4, to 5.1 percent, which would mark China's second slowest growth rate since 1990.

Now, the pandemic has also been causing well-documented delays in shipping channels and hurting the global supply chain. But that is creating new opportunities for an old method of transportation: freight trains.

CNN's Cyril Vanier explains.


XAVIER WANDERPEPEN, DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, EUROPE/CHINA TRAINS, SNCF: This train arrived last night to Paris and will be unloaded today.

CYRIL VANIER, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR/CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At this freight station outside the French capital, the end of a journey across two continents.

(on camera): So this train carried consumer goods all the way from China to France. Headbands, electric bikes, sweatshirts, shoes, you name it.

But, also, items that are used in industry. Components and spare parts, like steering wheels, like valves, tubes.

And then all of them are going to be trucked to their final destination.


(voice-over): Rail only accounts for about 5 percent of goods transported between China and Europe. That number, though, set to tick up as an old trading route is brought back to economic relevance.

Beijing has been promoting, even subsidizing it, part of its Belt and Road Initiative aimed at increasing trade ties and China's economic clout.

More than 6,000 miles, from the city of Xinjiang, through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, and further into Europe. An odyssey usually completed in less than a month.

WANDERPEPEN: The train has the slight advantage to -- to be able to have circulation within three or four weeks between Europe and China. So time is more quick, and time is money, of course.

VANIER: The value of time not lost on businesses, especially those that ship expensive cargo. Luxury French furniture brand Ligne Roset selling its iconic sofas around the world, with 20 percent of exports going to China, usually by boat.

(on camera): So this container full of furniture is about to leave for Xiantao in China's east coast. It should get there in about 50 days. Now a similar container left yesterday by train, and that should get there in 35 days.

(voice-over): "These last few months, the maritime route has been a nightmare," says the group's transport director. Shipping has become two or three times more expensive, and a lot slower. Europe-China by sea is now taking up to 70 days, compared to 40, previously.

The pandemic has thrown the global supply chain into disarray. An increase in demand, and a shortage of labor to work the ports and drive the trucks, has led to scenes like these. A bottleneck of cargo.

And so, the good old fashioned freight train is making a comeback.

Near Paris, the director of development here expects the number of trains plying the Europe-China route to double by the end of the decade.

The only spanner in the works? Even trains, billed as more reliable, are not completely immune to the pandemic. This one arrived two weeks late, after multiple German operators came down with COVID.

WANDERPEPEN: We live with the pandemic like everybody. As we say it in French, c'est la vie.

VANIER: Cyril Vanier, CNN, Paris.


HOLMES: Thanks for watching CNN NEWSROOM, spending part of your day with me. I'm Michael Holmes. I'll be back with more news right after this.