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17 trillion dollars.

That's how much the pandemic could cost today's children in terms of lost earnings over a lifetime. The number comes from a new report by the United Nations and the World Bank.

Starting in March 2020 schools closed in nearly every country, for 1.6 billion children. Nearly 2 years later, interruptions continue here in the U.S. and part-time or remote learning is still going on in places from India to Brazil.

The spike of COVID-19 cases has disrupted travel, entertainment and sports even as thousands around the U.S. stood in line for tests and some hospitals and health care facilities started to face staffing crunches as the pandemic wears on.

Our top stories on the Goats and Soda blog in 2021 were mostly about the pandemic. But that's not the only topic that made readers click.

Even as the world worries about COVID-19, people made time for other topics.

They definitely wanted advice on how to get kids to help out with chores. That was one of our top stories of the year.

They read articles about other worrisome diseases — like Nipah virus and cancer (and the role that alcohol plays as a cause).

Each week, we answer frequently asked questions about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions." See an archive of our FAQs here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Outside a foreign currency exchange in Zimbabwe's capital, hordes of people desperate for U.S. dollars are pushed up against each other.

"That's it, keep it tight," some shout, trying to prevent others from jumping the line to buy the money that could get them a discount on goods pegged to a quickly devaluing local currency.

Panchavarnam and her husband earn about $2.50 a day selling coconuts from a rented cart on the streets of Madurai, a city in Southern India. That's barely enough to support their family of four. And when the pandemic struck, their income plummeted. They couldn't sell their wares during lockdowns. What's more, storms struck in November, destroying the thatched roof of the family hut. They had to borrow heavily to pay for repairs.

With another coronavirus variant racing across the U.S., once again health authorities are urging people to mask up indoors. Yes, you've heard it all before. But given how contagious omicron is, experts say, it's seriously time to upgrade to an N95 or similar high-filtration respirator when you're in public indoor spaces.

"Cloth masks are not going to cut it with omicron," says Linsey Marr, a researcher at Virginia Tech who studies how viruses transmit in the air.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Some stories on our blog Goats and Soda find an audience. Sometimes they don't. And when that happens, we editors get really bummed out!

That's why we're putting the spotlight on stories from 2021 that we think deserve more pageviews.

You'll learn about a group in Germany that teaches refugee women how to ride a bike. A Facebook page in Senegal that helps people find lost items like smartphones — and sheep! And a profile of a wheelchair basketball champion who has been finding creative ways to stay on top of her game during the pandemic.

In September, the World Health Organization issued a statement that the health care system in Afghanistan was on the verge of collapse.

"Unless urgent action is taken, the country faces an imminent humanitarian catastrophe," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus following a visit to Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In mid-August, not long after the Tokyo Olympics had wrapped up, the situation in Japan looked grim to Dr. Hideaki Oka, an infectious disease expert at the Saitama Medical University Hospital outside Tokyo.

As he treated COVID-19 patients at his hospital, Japan was in the grip of a fifth wave of infections. New cases nationwide had surged to around 25,000 a day, and the country's medical system was being stretched to its limits.

By late September, cases had plunged, and Oka is now getting a respite, of sorts.

For the second year in a row, the global pandemic has dominated our blog — and our readers' attention.

Our top COVID stories reveal the ever-changing nature of the crisis. In February, readers were curious about India's mysterious drop in cases, which spiked again — creating another popular story — in spring. In summer, people wanted to read about the delta variant, only to shift focus to omicron in winter. All the while, readers wanted to know: were vaccines and masks still effective against all the coronavirus mutations?

America spends $3.8 trillion on health care annually, more than any other country. Yet when it comes to creating a more equitable public health system, it could learn a thing or two from some of the world's poorest nations, says Katie Bollbach, executive director of Partners in Health-U.S.

It's been about a month since scientists first detected the highly mutated coronavirus variant dubbed "omicron."

Since then, scientists have come to learn that omicron spreads faster than the delta variant and is the quickest-spreading variant the world has yet faced. It also has a huge ability to bypass immune protection and cause breakthrough infections.

The big open-ended question right now centers on omicron's severity: Does omicron cause milder disease, compared to previous variants? Does it thereby lower the risk of severe disease and hospitalization?

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Each week, we answer frequently asked questions about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions." See an archive of our FAQs here.

My kids are so over seeing Santa Claus through Zoom. Can I bring them to the mall this year for the real deal?

When the Botswanan scientists saw the sequences, they were stunned.

Four international travelers had tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 11, four days after entering the country. But when the cases were genetically sequenced, where the genetic code of the virus is analyzed to look for worrying changes, the scientists discovered a variant they had never encountered before.

And soon, they alerted the world to what would become known as the omicron variant.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Some former vaccine skeptics in Eastern Europe have shifted over to the other side as coronavirus infections surge, countries are making it more difficult for the unvaccinated to travel abroad and authorities battle against government distrust and vaccine disinformation.

Omicron is spreading lightning fast.

In the U.S., the percentage of cases caused by this new coronavirus variant jumped seven times in just a week, from 0.4% of the total cases sequenced to 2.9%, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. And it's already causing about 13% of cases in a region that includes New York and New Jersey.

If you're worried about the new omicron coronavirus variant, you're far from alone: The World Health Organization is warning that omicron is spreading like no other strain of COVID-19 has before.

"Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news briefing.

LISBON, Portugal — The week the omicron variant hit Portugal, Violante Rocha — 80 years old and triple-vaccinated — masked up and went to the theater.

"Everyone else wore a mask too, of course," she says. "We understand that life is too good to lose. This is how we live with COVID."

The new coronavirus variant, called omicron, was first identified in South Africa only about a month ago and is already spreading quickly in Europe and North America. It has an exceptionally high number of mutations, and those mutations appear to make it more transmissible than the delta variant.

Now scientists in South Africa have just released the first data looking at how well the vaccines will work against the omicron variant. And the news is mixed.

The port of Indiana is the largest town for miles on the Amazon River. People travel for days in long, narrow, wooden boats called peque peques down the Amazon and various tributaries to get to the markets in Indiana. Cargo barges and long botes rapidos that can carry dozen of passengers also stop at Indiana before heading down the river to Brazil. And yes, Indiana was named in 1948 after the U.S. state by a Peruvian who'd studied in Indianapolis.

The first country to really get hit by omicron is South Africa.

Before the new variant took off last month, coronavirus cases there were low – only several hundred per day in mid November.

But by early December, the tally of daily infections had shot up to more than 4,500 — and genomic sequencing shows that omicron is to blame.

Each week, we answer frequently asked questions about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at goatsandsoda@npr.org with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions." See an archive of our FAQs here.

Updated December 27, 2021 at 4:47 PM ET

For many Americans, the hunt for an at-home COVID test can be frustrating right now. In the aftermath of the holidays, drugstore shelves are bare in many places and states that have offered free over-the-counter tests, like Ohio and New Hampshire, ran out within hours.

The world has "lost the plot" on equitable vaccine access during the coronavirus pandemic and is falling far short of targets to vaccinate the global south, according to scathing assessments from experts as the omicron variant spreads to more countries.

From the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization [WHO] and several other public health groups have argued the only way out of the pandemic is to vaccinate the entire world.

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