Pandemic-related restrictions affect many festivities to usher in the new year
Sorrow for the dead and dying, fear of more infections to come and hopes for an end to the coronavirus pandemic were — again — the bittersweet cocktail with which the world said good riddance to 2021 and ushered in 2022.
New Year's Eve, which used to be celebrated globally with a free-spirited wildness, felt instead like a case of déjà vu, with the fast-spreading Omicron variant again filling hospitals.
In London, officials said as many as one in 15 people were infected with the virus in the week before Christmas, while hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the U.K. rose 44 per cent in the last week.
At the La Timone hospital in the southern French city of Marseille, Dr. Fouad Bouzana could only sigh Friday when asked what 2022 might bring.
Big question, he said.
It's starting to become exhausting, because the waves come one after another.
The pandemic game-changer of 2021 — vaccinations — continued apace, with some people getting jabs while others stocked up on drinks and treats for subdued feasting.
Pakistan announced that it had achieved its goal of fully vaccinating 70 million people by the year's end.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin mourned the dead, praised Russians for their strength in difficult times and soberly warned that the pandemic
isn't retreating yet. Russia's virus task force has reported 308,860 COVID-19 deaths but its state statistics agency says the death toll has been more than double that.
Elsewhere, the venue that many chose for New Year's celebrations was the same place they became overly familiar with during lockdowns: their homes. Because of Omicron's virulence, cities cancelled traditional New Year's Eve concerts and fireworks displays to avoid drawing large crowds. Pope Francis also cancelled his New Year's Eve tradition of visiting the life-sized manger set up in St. Peter's Square, again to avoid a crowd.
Face masks again became mandatory Friday on the streets of Paris, a rule widely ignored among afternoon crowds that thronged the sunbathed Champs-Êlysées. With nearly 50 per cent of the Paris region's intensive care beds filled by COVID-19 patients, hospitals were ordered to postpone non-essential surgeries to make more room.
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People discouraged from gathering
New Zealand was one of the first places to celebrate the new year with a low-key lights display projected onto Auckland landmarks, including the Sky Tower and Harbour Bridge. While there hasn't yet been any community spread of Omicron in New Zealand, authorities still wanted to discourage crowds gathering.
Australia went ahead with its celebrations despite an explosion in virus cases. Thousands of fireworks lit up the sky over Sydney's Harbour Bridge and Opera House at midnight in a spectacular display.
WATCH | Fireworks ring in 2022 in Sydney:
Hours before the celebrations began, Australian health authorities reported a record 32,000 new virus cases, many of them in Sydney. Because of the surge, crowds were far smaller than in pre-pandemic years, when as many as one million revellers would crowd inner Sydney.
'A numbness has set in'
In Japan, writer Naoki Matsuzawa said he would spend the next few days cooking and delivering food to the elderly because some stores would be closed. He said vaccinations had made people less anxious about the pandemic, despite the new variant.
A numbness has set in, and we are no longer overly afraid, said Matsuzawa, who lives in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo.
Some of us are starting to take for granted that it won't happen to me.
Some in Japan appeared to be shrugging off virus fears, however, by dining and drinking raucously in downtown Tokyo and flocking to shops, celebrating not only the holidays but a sense of exhilaration over being freed from recent virus restrictions.
Asia-Pacific first to usher in new year
In South Korea's capital, Seoul, the annual New Year's Eve bell-ringing ceremony was cancelled for the second straight year because of a surge in cases.
Officials said a pre-recorded video of this year's bell-ringing ceremony would instead be broadcast online and on television. The ceremony had previously drawn tens of thousands of people. Last year's cancellation was the first since the ceremony began in 1953.
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South Korean authorities also planned to close many beaches and other tourist attractions along the east coast, which usually swarm with people hoping to catch the year's first sunrise on New Year's Day. On Friday, South Korea said it will extend tough distancing rules for another two weeks.
In India, millions of people were planning to ring in the new year from their homes, with nighttime curfews and other restrictions taking the fizz out of celebrations in large cities including New Delhi and Mumbai.
Authorities have imposed restrictions to keep revellers away from restaurants, hotels, beaches and bars amid a surge in cases fuelled by Omicron.
But some places, including Goa, a tourist paradise, and Hyderabad, an information technology hub, have been spared from night curfews thanks to smaller numbers of infections, although other restrictions still apply.
Many Indonesians were also forgoing their usual festivities for a quieter evening at home, after the government banned many New Year's Eve celebrations. In Jakarta, fireworks displays, parades and other large gatherings were prohibited, while restaurants and malls were allowed to remain open but with curfews imposed.
In Hong Kong, about 3,000 people planned to attend a New Year's Eve concert featuring local celebrities including boy band Mirror. The concert will be the first big New Year's Eve event held since 2018, after events were cancelled in 2019 due to political strife and last year because of the pandemic.
China cancels events
In China, the Shanghai government cancelled events including an annual light show along the Huangpu River in the city centre that usually draws hundreds of thousands of spectators.
There were no plans for public festivities in Beijing, where popular temples have been closed or had limited access since mid-December. The government has called on people to avoid leaving the Chinese capital if possible and requires tests for travellers arriving from areas with infections.
Popular temples in the eastern Chinese cities of Nanjing, Hangzhou and other major cities cancelled traditional New Year's Eve
lucky bell-ringing ceremonies and asked the public to stay away.
But in Thailand, authorities were allowing New Year's Eve parties and firework displays to continue, albeit with strict safety measures imposed. They were hoping to slow the spread of the Omicron variant while also softening the blow to the country's battered tourism sector.
In the Philippines, a powerful typhoon two weeks ago wiped out basic necessities for tens of thousands of people ahead of New Year's Eve. More than 400 were killed by Typhoon Rai and at least 82 remain missing. Half a million homes were damaged or destroyed.
Leahmer Singson, a 17-year-old mother of one, lost her home to a fire last month, and then the typhoon blew away her temporary wooden shack in Cebu city.
She will welcome the new year with her husband, who works in a glass and aluminum factory, and her one-year-old baby in a ramshackle tent in a coastal clearing where hundreds of other families erected small tents from debris, rice sacks and tarpaulin to shield themselves from the rain and sun.
Asked what she wants for the new year, Singson had a simple wish:
I hope we won't get sick.