World ushers in New Year under Covid shadow

The world ushered in the New Year with pandemic controls muting celebrations for billions of people eager to bid farewell to a virus-ridden 2020.

After a grinding year that has seen at least 1.7 million people die from Covid-19, fresh waves of infection have sparked renewed lockdowns and forced would-be revellers to extend their 2020 tradition of watching events from the sofa.

The eagerly awaited first seconds of 2021 fell on the Pacific nations of Kiribati and Samoa from 1000 GMT, with the uninhabited Howland and Baker Islands the last to tip over into the New Year, 26 hours later.

New Zealand, which has won plaudits for its handling of the coronavirus, followed an hour later with large crowds gathered in Auckland to watch a fireworks display.

Although still isolated by international border closures, months of zero recorded cases in the community has let life in New Zealand return to relative normality.

In Australia’s largest city, Sydney, fireworks lit up the glittering harbour with a dazzling display at 1300 GMT, but few spectators watched in person.

Plans to allow crowds were scrapped amid a cluster of around 150 new infections that have seen travel to and from Sydney severely restricted.

“I think everybody is looking towards 2021 as a fresh beginning and a fresh start,” Karen Roberts, among the lucky few who were allowed past checkpoints around the area, told AFP at a bar nestled under the Sydney Opera House.

– Curfews being enforced –

In Hong Kong, despite restrictions, some ventured out to mark the start of 2021, gathering next to the Victoria Harbour water front to take selfies.

In Tokyo, where residents face the prospect a state of emergency being imposed after a daily record 1,300 new coronavirus infections were recorded in the last 24 hours, people queued in face masks and face guards to offer New Year prayers.

Wuhan in China where the virus first appeared late last year, saw thousands gather to celebrate the New Year and Taipei also enjoyed a more traditionally upbeat celebration with crowds massing to watch fireworks.

Elsewhere, the mood was far more downbeat.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged in a New Year’s address that a second wave of infections was battering the nation.

“Unfortunately the epidemic has not yet been completely stopped. The fight against it does not stop for a minute,” he said.

Italy — where shocking images of makeshift morgues and exhausted medics awoke the world to the severity of the crisis — is on a nationwide lockdown until January 7 and a 10 pm curfew is in place.

From France to Latvia to Brazil, police and — in some cases — military personnel are being deployed to make sure night-time curfews or bans on large gatherings are enforced.

In hard-hit London, 74-year-old American singer-songwriter Patti Smith had been due to ring in the New Year with a tribute to National Health Service workers who have died from Covid-19, projected on the screen at Piccadilly Circus and streamed on YouTube.

Due to alarm at rising infections rates, however, the big screen projection was cancelled with the tribute viewable instead solely online.

– Social gathering –

A fireworks and a laser show was held in Dubai at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, where there have been a slew of new cases.

All those watching the event live — whether at a public place, hotel or restaurant — were required to wear masks and register with identifying QR barcodes.

In Beirut, a city still reeling from the August 4 port explosion, authorities are also cutting loose.

A night curfew has been pushed back to 3 am. Bars, restaurants and night clubs have all reopened and are advertising large parties to mark the turn of the year.

On the banks of Lake Baikal in Siberia, where temperatures plummet to as low as -35 degrees celsius (-31 Fahrenheit), around a dozen Russians emerged invigorated after a new year’s eve ice dip.

The swimmers, known in Russia as “walruses”, ran several kilometers (miles) through a snowy forest in swimsuits and festive costumes before plunging into the world’s largest freshwater lake.

“It’s invigorating. It stings a little!” Andrei Bugai told AFP after climbing out of the water.

“It’ll make you feel 10 years younger,” said Ksenia Novoseltseva, another swimmer, with a wide grin on her face.

Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday used her New Year greeting to warn Germans the “historic” coronavirus crisis will extend into 2021 even if vaccines bring some hope.

In Brazil — which has already recorded more than 193,000 Covid-19 deaths, the second-largest number in the world — fearful medics await a new wave.

In recent days, social media has been filled with videos showing mask-less revellers enjoying a night out and television channels have even shown live images of police closing bars full of customers.

“The pandemic peak was between May and July, which was when there wasn’t a lot of movement and we looked after ourselves more. Now there are many cases and people are acting as if there wasn’t a pandemic,” said Luiz Gustavo de Almeida, a microbiologist at the University of Sao Paulo.


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